Crazy quilt

I’m quilting again, after a too-long break. I don’t know — something about having two children under the age of five just didn’t seem conducive to futzing around with geometry and sewing machines and rotary blades and tiny scraps of fabric and, oh, pins. Lots of pins, scattered, no matter how careful you try to be, on the floor. On which crawl babies. Who like to put things in their mouths. And so on.

Also there was the fact that I couldn’t find the pedal for the sewing machine. And then, for some reason, I decided that the sewing machine wasn’t working. And the idea of both finding the pedal (it was behind some shelves in the basement) and then actually hooking up the entire machine and running some fabric through it just to check if it worked — and then deciding what to do with it if it didn’t — seemed so overwhelming that I needed to take a nap and eat some chocolate every time I thought of it.

But, in the past few weeks, I’ve got unstuck. I suspect it has something to do with finishing teaching. For the past semester, I taught a course in creative nonfiction at the local university. And while teaching opened my eyes to about a zillion mostly fantastic things, it also seemed to consume vast swaths of my creative energy. It seems I can teach writing or actually write, but not both at the same time, aside from a few blog posts here and there.

But! I am done! And from the moment the last paper was graded, I’ve been on a nonstop organizational extravaganza. Filing, purging, list making and crossing-off. Alphabetizing the CDs. I even bought a label maker. I’m hard-core, man.

And, so, the sewing machine works. I’m not sure why I thought it didn’t, but it did a fine job of hemming the hanging-down curtains in Rowan’s room, which have been bothering me for approximately a year and a half. And then I dug out the beginnings of a quilt idea I had experimented briefly with a couple years ago — log cabin, but monochrome — and tried to figure out exactly where it stood.

I think I first got obsessed with quilting when I took Women’s Writing and Feminist Theory as an undergraduate. Read enough Alice Walker at a formative age, and I suppose that’s bound to happen. I remember creating a presentation on The Color Purple in which I mapped out all the characters’ various relationships to each other as patches on a crazy quilt. There was Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use,” which brought home to me the power of the artist: when one sister objects to her sibling actually using her family’s heirloom quilts as opposed to hanging them on a wall, their mother replies, “‘She can always make some more. Maggie knows how to quilt.’” Something about quilting’s combination of beauty and utility, the idea of disparate scraps of cloth coming together to create works of art, fascinated me.

And now, it appears, Rowan is fascinated, too. He stands by me as I feed scraps of material through the machine. His job is to remove the pins, which he does, carefully replacing them in the Altoids box that serves as their container. Then he helps me cut the newly sewn pieces apart, and then stands by the ironing board, inhaling deeply, while I press them. “I love the way it smells,” he says of the steaming fabric. For the sake of everyone's self-preservation, I have not yet explained to him the function of the pedal. Just as he thinks the car drives itself, he assumes the sewing machine is powered by my brain. And that's just fine by me, for now.

I think of Walker, in her essay collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, describing the year it took her to write The Color Purple: lodged in a cabin in northern California, working on a quilt, spending time with her daughter. Scraps of fabric stitched together like words become sentences, paragraphs, chapters. The whole more than the sum of its parts. Her, trusting in her vision of what both would be before anyone else could see them.

All of which is by way of saying that I have dug out the novel manuscript, and I’m writing again. This is not so much a resolution as an affirmation: 2010 holds a novel manuscript and a queen-sized quilt top. Pins be damned. Yesterday, I bought more fabric. Along with the label maker.

Rowan doesn’t yet know what we’re making, has no concept that these painstakingly pinned and sewn and unpinned and ironed pieces of fabric, have any larger purpose. “But what is it?” he asks. And I try to explain: that we’re making a blanket; that each of these tiny pieces of cloth will eventually join together in a (hopefully) gorgeous design, the whole more beautiful than the sum of its parts. I show him the quilt I made for him before I knew him, had any sense of his possibility. We hang it on his wall, right next to his map of the world.

“Basically,” I said to him, “you take a [perfectly good] big piece of material, cut it up into a whole bunch of little pieces, rearrange them, and sew it back together again”: smaller, more intricate, stronger, more detailed. More work. More beautiful, for its scars. Kind of, some days, like my life, before and after him.