“Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.” ~ Stephen Sondheim.
My grandfather (whom I never met since he died some years before I was born) was a truck driver. He left school at the age of twelve, and his first job was to stand outside a grocery store (where there were stands of fruits and vegetables on display) to make sure no kids came by and stole them. He eventually started work as a delivery driver, though his first vehicle was a horse and cart! I learned all this and more just a few years ago. My father had written a tribute to him on the 100th anniversary of his father’s birth. It was written in Welsh, for a Welsh Church newspaper, which meant I would not have been able read it even if I had known about it. Fortunately for me my cousin had it translated, and it is to be found on the Family Tree website she curates.
Although the family did not have two cents to rub together, and they rarely saw their father as he left home in the morning before they got up, and came home each day after they went to bed, (they went to Church every Sunday – the only day they spent time together), he was a strong role model for his three sons. Education was seen as the path out of poverty, and he made sure his sons went to a good school. All three of them went on to university and became ministers. My father pointed out what a sacrifice this was for the family, since although there were three sons, none of them used their education to get a job which could help support their parents in any way. In those days ministers (and their families) were indeed ‘poor as church mice’.
And yet my father and his family lived a charmed life. He spent over twenty years of his working life in the beautiful tropical island of Jamaica, and he would always talk about the ‘rich tapestry’ of his life. His blessings came in many forms, and he was grateful for every one of them.
When we think of tapestries, we imagine beautiful scenes woven with great care, intricate interweaving of colored threads to create a story in pictures. But our lives are usually more messy than such carefully designed works of art. There may be random acts that change the trajectory of our lives; interruptions of our carefully planned life; unexpected disruptions that throw us for a loop. Or there may be repetitions of mistakes; lessons not learned that leave us stuck in unhealthy patterns. Sometimes we go from one crisis to another, with no neat happy ending in between. Perhaps in hindsight we can see a path through, or recognize how much of our chaos was of our own making.
I heard a story about an artist whose quilts are on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bisa Butler is an African American artist who has taken old black and white photos (including one of Frederick Douglass) and reimagined them in vibrant color, in silk, cotton, velvet and more. Her father is from Ghana, so some of the textiles she uses are the Kente cloth. These are not your grandmother’s quilts! Apparently the quilts are accompanied by their own music, by African American artists (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes singing ‘Wake up everybody’ is one). Her husband is a DJ, so it is a perfect artistic marriage of art and sound.
I have never been into sewing. I once asked my mother (who was a sewer, mostly out of necessity – but also with great skill) why she hadn’t taught me to sew. Her answer surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. She was willing to teach anyone who expressed an interest, she said, but she was not going to force anyone to do something they didn’t want to do! My mother was not a time-waster, nor was she a persuader. I once noticed that if we had people over for a meal, and she served one of her baked goods for desert, if she offered a second helping and the person politely refused, she would never keep offering. She believed that grown people should know their own minds, and would not expect them to refuse if they actually wanted another!
So although I know how to handle a needle (and a sewing machine if I have to), the thought of sewing for pleasure never appealed to me. And yet quilting is more than just art. It can be a communal shared experience. I am sure that for some it provided a way to recycle worn clothes, giving them new life as a bed covering. In the era of AIDS it was a therapeutic way to memorialize the many lives lost to the disease. I wonder if anyone has started a COVID collection, for we have now lost so many to this latest plague.
When I think about our planet, seemingly the only habitable one at least in our solar system, it appears very random. What are the chances? What if this is an experiment, the gods giving us a chance to prove that the human race is worth saving? We seem to be making a big mess of the climate, destroying our only means of survival. We are not doing so well in managing diseases, in controlling the spread of a virus when we have science to help show us how. We are continuing to treat our fellow human beings with cruelty and disregard for human life, treating some as ‘other’, as ‘less than’. If this is an experiment, how are we being judged? I was telling a friend that I hoped that in my next life I can come back with a different attitude, not caring so much about the challenges of each day, letting stress roll off my shoulders as if it doesn’t matter. Her response was ‘do you really want another life?’ Perhaps not, but have I learned the lessons I need to learn?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all come together to make a giant quilt, harmonizing colors, agreeing upon themes, working for the good of the whole? This Friday morning I hope that whatever part you play, whether in a tapestry or a quilt, you are able to find joy and beauty. And if you are in the Philadelphia area and have not already done so, please visit Bisa Butler’s quilt display and post pictures!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!