The Foolish Quilter

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on April 14, 2014 by audacioussingingmoonlight

My mother should have stopped me. She should have wrested the fabric and the scissors from my hands and padlocked the sewing machine. But that’s not my mother’s style. A quilt purveyor and sewing instructor for much of my childhood, the bulk of what she’d learned she’d taught herself—from books, from trial and error, from having the sheer gutsiness to reason that if it could be done, then why couldn’t it be done by her? And apparently this belief extended to me because, when, at 17, I hatched the brilliant idea to design and construct my first quilt—a “mosaic” turtle comprising over 1100 1½-inch squares and a few similarly sized triangles—she did not gently explain to me that such an endeavor might be rather challenging and perhaps just a mite beyond my novice quilter status. No, she just nodded her head and smiled.

Turtle Quilt

I began by getting out my colored pencils and graph paper and sketching a rough turtle shape. I then decided that I wanted my creation to be as colorful as the mommy-made, rainbow biscuit quilt I snuggled under every night, so I determined that the turtle’s head, legs, and tail would be green, the surrounding ocean blue, and the articulations of the shell would vary the rest of the spectrum. After coloring each square on the graph paper its appointed hue, I raided my mother’s glorious scrap bin, finding a multitude of shades and textures to use in each color zone. I delighted in the many remnants leftover from her projects over the years and, since I only needed to cut a 1½-inch square or triangle out of each, no piece was too small!

Then, the sewing. My mother offered no unsolicited advice at any point during the project, but when I asked how to randomize the squares within each color zone (particularly the blue ones, of which there were many), she suggested I toss them all into a box, mix them up, and sew them together as they came to hand. How thrilling it was to watch them come together, seam by ¼–inch seam, the appearance of the fabrics changing as each new piece was added. I made 33 chains of 36 squares (the triangles now joined together to form squares) and then pinned the life out of those chains, matching seam to seam and piercing each. Throughout this stage, there was a lot of deep breathing, quite a bit of praying, and yes, a fair amount of swearing (especially when, on at least one occasion, I sewed two chains together the wrong way round!), but at long last, the top was done, the mosaic turtle framed by two borders, one light and one dark.

About a year after I started, I completed the 41”x48” piece, hand quilting ¼-inch inside the shell articulations and other body parts.

I love all the different fabrics.

I love all the different fabrics.

After that, I outlined the turtle as a whole, and repeated that outline into the ocean at greater and greater intervals to create a kind of wave pattern. Then my mother showed me how to wrap the back around to the front as a binding and finish it with a hidden stitch. Lastly, the one thing she did insist on, was that I sign the back in embroidery thread.

You can tell I like turtles!

You can tell I like turtles!

Is the quilt perfect? Ahem, no. Far from lining up properly, many, many seams travel off like little roads to nowhere; the seams beneath the top are folded in a comical variety of directions, making the quilt slight bumpy; and the corners are not quite the 90-degree angles to which a rectangle usually aspires, but whenever I look at it, I smile. I am reminded of the power of the fool—the one who is only one part wisdom to nine parts enthusiasm—too ignorant to believe that trying might be a bad idea, might be too hard, might make oneself look like, well . . . a fool.

I still can’t believe my mother didn’t try to talk me out of it. She just sat back and let me create and I can only thank her for that, especially because with all her skill and all the beautiful things she’s made over the years, that quilt still hangs on her bedroom wall.

 

P.S.  I have to admit, I had an added motive for publishing this post.  It’s in response to a Quilting Daily challenge to write about one’s first quilting project and if I win, I get to pick 5 items from Interweavestore.com (sigh).  Here are my choices: Watercolor Markers Supply Kit; Hand-Carving Premium Collection; New Tatting; Friendship Bracelets All Grown Up; and The Art of Whimsical Lettering.  What would you choose?

The True Meaning of Christmas Cake

Posted in Christmas cake with tags , , on December 11, 2013 by audacioussingingmoonlight

“There’s nothing better than Christmas cake.” I declare this indistinctly, between licks at the beater that has lately been mixing said dessert.

“If it’s made properly,” my mother adds. She stands opposite me in our small apartment kitchen, her manner marginally more demure than mine, as she uses a spatula to scrape the last, tiniest remnants of batter from its bowl.

It’s true. Some may call it fruitcake and rush into negative judgments, but this is not the small bar of candied cherries, citron, and pecans you pay $10 for at a supermarket. This is dried apricots, figs, sultanas, and cherries—all bought especially for the endeavor. And it is raisins, cranberries, and dates, and whatever other dried fruits have been languishing in my fridge—forgotten as snacks, they and their newly purchased brethren have now gotten happily tipsy on Irish whiskey, tenderly sprinkled with allspice, companionably joined by almonds, and finally, combined with the holy trinity: sugar, eggs, and butter—well in our case, it’s dairy-free soy margarine, and the flour that brings it all together is gluten-free, but this matters not one iota. I offer it a silent blessing as it disappears into the oven, where it will bake casually, not rushing, meditating gently in the oven for a few hours and when it cools, I will treat it to another swig of Jameson, wrap it lovingly in wax paper and aluminum foil, and then . . . I will wait.

Truth be told, I won’t be waiting as long as I should. Typically, one gives the cake 3 to 4 weeks to let it settle into itself, its flavors lusciously mingling and melding. I’ve heard stories of people in Britain who start the process as early as September, taking the cake out every few weeks to give it another wee dram. However, after having spent just about my entire life in New York, I have recently moved all the way to Louisiana. A week after Halloween, as they brought box after heavy box up the stairs, the movers commented on how wonderful it would be to be “home for the holidays,” so to speak. It’s true—especially since the move meant getting closer to family that already live here, but the business of becoming a Louisianan has eaten into much of my holiday prep time. I debated not making the cake at all. Why bother? And yet . . . it called to me. As I write this, I think, how ridiculous! It’s only a cake. It’s not even a family tradition. I learned about Christmas cakes through both my literary journeys and actual travels to Britain and Ireland. There is no ancestral link here, and yet, as I chop the fruit, I somehow always feel a certain sense of prayerfulness. I feel a strange satisfaction as my chef’s knife finds its way through the slight resistance of the leathery fruit. I revel in the colors offered by each morsel—tiny gems when they are lit up by the whiskey. And when I add those lovely bits to the batter, stirring carefully, I feel a warming completeness. This is something that is right, my heart says. In a life of uncertainty and pain, at this moment, as I mix together a silly Christmas cake, all is right with my world.

Christmas is only 2 weeks away (please don’t go running and screaming away from your computer in panic at this thought), so if it is to be a true Christmas cake and not a New Year’s one, as I have considered deeming it, it will only have a matter of days to rest before I wake it from its slumber, enrobe it in marzipan and fondant, decorate it in some fashion or other, and begin selling tickets for a chance to taste it.

Oh wait, did I just forget the true meaning of Christmas? Did I mention how good this thing is? No, I won’t really charge for the privilege of having a piece of my exalted cake. In fact, I’m quite certain that I will wish that I could share it with many more people—the ones I won’t see this Christmas—those left behind in New York and those other dear ones all over the world. You see, Christmas cake is about coming together—no matter how nutty you may think you are, bringing to life what you have—even if you view yourself as old or dried out, and realizing that when your gifts are joined with those of others, truly magical things can happen.

Shh . . . the cake is baking.

Shh . . . the cake is baking.

Oy, the pain!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on March 17, 2013 by audacioussingingmoonlight

“You’re not going to be happy when you read the paper today.”  My mother’s words put me on guard, but honestly, I didn’t think it was going to be as bad as all that, after all, if someone I knew and loved had died, then surely I would have heard about it before it ended up in print.

I was wrong.  It wasn’t a person, but it was a death—of sorts.  I feel my heart ripped from my chest; my stomach, the victim of a thousand sucker punches.  It shouldn’t hurt this bad, but it does.  It really does.  For there on the Poughkeepsie Journal book page is a full page article about Fever a new novel by Mary Beth Keane about Mary Mallon aka Typhoid Mary—the very subject of my own recently completed work of fiction Communing with Saints.  I have been submitting for a few months now.  Is this why I haven’t gotten any bites?  All the agents knew that this was in the pipeline?  Hard to know.  More to the point, will anyone buy my novel now?  It is admittedly very different from the aforementioned work by Ms. Keane.  Fever is a historical piece in which Mary lives in her natural timeline whereas Communing with Saints is set in 2005 and Mary appears in it as a ghost haunting a troubled young woman through the course of Lent.  Still, with the publishing industry in the state it is, one wonders if there is room for two titles so closely related in subject matter.  It’s a little hard not to feel that countless hours of study and writing and hair-pulling have all gone for naught.

I write this post in a state of shock and bewilderment, knowing that this sort of thing has happened to so many others in so many other ways and also believing, hoping that it can be a catalyst for something good.  After all, it has caused me to make an entry in this blog, something I haven’t done in more than three years—mostly, I think, out of fear.  Like Lucy, the other protagonist of Communing with Saints, I have been afraid of being seen and, even more so, of being judged, but right now, I feel a whole lot of “What the hell?” coursing through my veins.  So, I apologize, dear readers, for this abrupt reentry into your online lives (though some of you did report getting an old post from Feedburner a few weeks back—sorry about that—I think Google dislikes me as much as I am wary them), and I put to you the question that I’ve been batting around in my head for several months now: should I self-publish?  It’s been painful knowing that the work that I put so much of myself into and which seems to have some merit (if I do say so myself) is languishing, unread.  Unless something totally wild and fabulous happens, self-publishing will not bring me much of a payday—but is that really why I wrote it?  Is that really why the story asked me to put it down on paper?  (Sigh.)

At any rate, thank you for your patience.  You may be hearing more from me in the coming year—especially if I can, like Lucy, eventually get over the belief that invisibility equals safety—after all, here I was this morning, as hidden as can be, and oh, how I got hurt.

Unpublished

Posted in Uncategorized on November 9, 2009 by audacioussingingmoonlight

Oh, you’re finally hitting your teenagehood!

My mother has said this to me about a million times.

And I hate it . . .

Mostly because it feels so true.

I am in the throes of passion, rebellion,

frustration at the world at large,

irritation with several specific people in the world at large.

And reliving all this—again—is no more fun

than it was the first time.

I suppose I should consider myself lucky—

Some people don’t seem to make it past the age of 2.

But I’d really like to be an adult someday.

Trust myself.  Be comfortable with the body that sometimes seems well past its 31 years and the emotions that are perennially stuck at 14.

I’d like to be responsible.  No waffling.  No squirming.

I live up the road from FDR’s house, and almost every day for several weeks now I’ve had to drive by one of Eleanor’s quotes they’ve got posted out front: “Determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly.”  

To which my response is usually: “Grrrrrrrrr.” 

But that just reminds me of my cat Golda growling as she looks out the window, and my mother going outside to chase away the cat that’s causing Golda’s anxiety.  My mother can’t find the cat, so she comes back inside only to realize that, in the dim light, Golda is, in fact, growling at her own reflection.

 

A Chat with Retrovirus Rosy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on October 14, 2009 by audacioussingingmoonlight

    Is it weird that I think a picture of a retrovirus is beautiful?  Especially when it’s one that might just possibly be the cause of my 16-year illness?  I’ve just read a report at npr.org that says that XMRV is present in two-thirds of CFS sufferers, compared to only 4 percent of the general population.  Now, as my psychology professors were very insistent on drumming into my head in college: Correlation does not prove causality!  And, even if XMRV does cause CFS, it will take some time before the appropriate treatment is available to the general public.

    But I have to say that simply the notion that people are working on this, that they haven’t given up on folks like me, is almost too hopeful for words.  I’ve never imagined this moment would come—when scientists would be this close to identifying a causal agent for my illness.  It has seemed altogether too farfetched.  And I’m not sure why.  Perhaps it is that I still am haunted consciously or unconsciously by the notion that my sickness is not real, that really, I am just a slacker. 

    Or maybe it’s just that I gave up on allopathic medicine a long time ago.  Or perhaps, more accurately, 16 years ago, it seemed to give up on me.  Over the intervening years, I have gotten used to conventional medicine being unhelpful to me.  There is no bitterness in that statement.  In fact, I have often felt that there must be something wrong with my chemistry or my way of being that has caused me to be incurable in so many different ways.  My expectations of doctors have become so measly that when, in the past few years, a medication has proven effective (for non-CFS ailments), I have been genuinely surprised.  

    And now I look at this magnificent picture of a remarkable organism that may even now be coding and recoding itself into my DNA—making itself one with me.  I should feel violated, but strangely, I don’t.  It looks like roses to me and again, I can’t help it, it is beautiful to me.  Not that beautiful things can’t be deadly or, at the very least, extremely annoying.  Beautiful does not equal good.  Truth maybe, but not good. 

    I have long thought of my body as a fluid community of cells, rather than a solid, individual being.  Consequently, I have tried to coax my cells to health—with words, with imagined light beamed into uncooperative places, with a sense of love that I hoped would penetrate to the heart of even the most stubborn malady.  I have reasoned with them: “Hey guys we’re all in this together.”  Apologized to them:  “I am so sorry about putting us all through that experience, but please don’t punish me for it now.”  And I know that with this idea of a retrovirus fresh in my mind, I am bound to start talking to it as well—whether or not it is actually there.  “Hello, Rosy the Retrovirus, would you mind taking up a little less room?  It’s getting a little crowded in here.”  Perhaps I should be more forceful: “Get the hell out, and take your new DNA code with you!” 

    Aye, there’s the rub.  Once a retrovirus has gotten its little claws in you, there isn’t any going back.  I remember the sadistic little grin my Neuropsych prof donned as she explained to us that curing HIV (also a retrovirus) was impossible because it infiltrates one’s genome so completely that the host cells don’t even realize that they are replicating anything but their own original code.

    As I understand it, current HIV treatments work by inhibiting the retrovirus’ progression.  But, as my professor pointed out, this is only a stopgap measure.  The virus is still present and, in fact, becomes a part of the host’s self on a very basic level.  So if I do have XMRV, it is, right now, a genuine part of me.  Of course, there are a lot of individuals inside of me right now that I would classify as not me—a plethora of helper and hurter microorganisms simply doing what I myself am: trying to live as well as possible.  I don’t think this is what religious people mean when they say, “You are never alone,” but it’s so true.  Forget about God, I carry a whole population of me-s and not me-s around with me wherever I go. (Come to think of it, where is the “I” in all of this?—Best leave that one for another day.)

    Can we live in peace?  I don’t know.  I’m guessing not, though—since the prosperity of many of these organisms means illness or even death for me.  Whether or not I am aware of it, I am probably, as I write this, making war inside my body. 

    And this is all natural—which, if you believe those labels on cereal boxes, means it must be good.  You know, like hemlock and black holes.  And like that picture of XMRV—natural, beautiful—and, if those scientists are right, one major pain in the ass.

To read more about XMRV and see its picture go here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113613955

It’s Called a Knitted Brow for a Reason

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 7, 2009 by audacioussingingmoonlight

    The knitting gods are laughing. 

    Many people—too many people—over the course of time, have decided to perpetuate the notion that knitting is relaxing, soothing, a restful way to pass the time.  I have to admit that I have been one of those people.  And it is true that when one’s nerves are raw from sitting in one too many doctors’ offices, it is comforting to have something to occupy one’s hands and mind.  Order can be restored to a chaotic world through the gratifying binary assuredness of knit and purl.

    That is, until you make a mistake.  Okay, one mistake is not so bad.  Everyone makes mistakes; you just go back and fix it.  So what if it means ripping out three rows?  It’s not a big deal.

    Until you make another mistake.  Two mistakes is not a lot, but it’s a little frustrating that you weren’t paying better attention to what you were doing so that you could have seen you’re misstep right when you made it. 

    The third mistake is where it starts to get ugly.  The yarn is starting to fuzz from having been ripped out so many times, but really, it’s okay, you are learning and really, isn’t that what it’s all about? 

    Sure, and after ten years, I’ve made enough mistakes to be a master knitter by now—though I’m not.

    I started making a hat last Thursday.  It was going to be a quick, fun project before I went back and tackled the Fair Isle vest I’ve been avoiding since August.  This is the vest that I nearly finished at least twice before having to dismantle almost all of it and start again.  The one that needs me only to knit the neck and shoulders, but whose completion involves picking up stitches evenly which can be a whole other nightmare I won’t even get into.  The one that will probably be too small for me when I actually get up the gumption to finish it.

    So I started the hat—a lovely, tweed, cabled tam from the same wool with which I had just successfully completed a beautiful shawl in just over a week and a half.  This should be no sweat, I thought.  But the knitting gods are capricious and really, I think, just a bit cruel.  This past weekend I worked and reworked the hat as I watched the final games of my beloved Mets heartbreaking 2009 season.  Maybe it was because I had become a little cocky.  Maybe St. Augustine is in among the knitting deities and has insisted that I be purified of my ignoble sin of pride, but that hat that should have taken only a few hours to make is still yet to be finished.  I made a grand push Sunday night.  By the end of the Jets/Saints game, I had begun to decrease (knitter speak for “I see a light at the end of the tunnel!”), and I thought, I’ll just stay up until I’m done.  Three national parks later (Ken Burns The National Parks: America’s Best Idea on PBS), I realized that I had made yet another error.  I put it down, resigned.  This is something I have learned during my knitting tenure.  After a certain number of missteps, it’s best just to let it rest awhile.

    And so it sits on my ottoman in the living room, waiting.  I will finish it, probably this week.  I don’t know what it’ll end up looking like, but another thing I’ve learned is that if you want to create something beautiful, you have to be willing to crash and burn—a lot.  I’ll finish the hat.  And I’ll make peace with the knitting pantheon, because I know in my heart of hearts that they are only trying to do me a favor.  They know what I need to be doing right now (write now!) and knitting is not it.

An Ode to Compost

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on September 30, 2009 by audacioussingingmoonlight

    I love composts. I love the fact that I can throw away any amount of unused food and not feel guilty about being wasteful because I know that nothing I put into that compost bin is ever wasted. It will find its way back into some simpler, more basic state and become food not only for worms, but for next year’s flowers and vegetables. What I do not eat today, I will eat at some point.

    I love shredding my old drafts of writing and commending them to the compost as well. I like that my words find their way into my mother’s garden—that her work and mine are united somehow in a dually poetic and mundane way. I know that my words will be safe in the compost. I can trust the microbes to chew them gently, to keep the secrets of my ill formed ideas, my inelegant turns of phrase. I love putting my old drafts onto the compost because it feels hopeful to me. So I didn’t get it right this time; it’s okay, out of these efforts will grow new seeds—all the more fertile for the nutrients offered up by their predecessors.

    I love the unexpected things that grow out of composts. This year, it was a gargantuan pumpkin plant that crept carefully out of luscious soil and crawled all over the backyard. It is no wonder to me that fairytales deal in pumpkins. They are among the most enchanted looking plants—the determined corkscrews that grip, the huge silver-green leaves tenting the new fruit, the lead branch that rears up like a preying mantis as it explores the world.

    It nearly always irritates me when I watch a TV show or movie that uses Tarot cards as a storytelling device. Believe me, I get the draw; tarot cards are exciting and magical. But they are not as spooky (if at all) as all those film representations would have us believe. What really irks me is when, inevitably, the final card is turned over and, once again, it is the Death card. As the audience, we are meant to be frightened, put on our guard, for here it is, death is coming. But the truth is, in real-life Tarot, the Death card rarely signifies a physical death, it is simply a harbinger of change—often of a positive nature. I think Michael Tierra and Candis Cantin describe it best in their book The Spirit of Herbs: A Guide to the Herbal Tarot (1993). “Death of the old is necessary for the new to emerge. The old is like a compost heap, full of rich experiences from which new forms emerge.”

    I love this idea. It is clear that we must live in the present. There is no time other than right now, but it is also true that our personal histories do inform each present moment—but it doesn’t follow that this impact must be negative. That rotten, inedible tomato from long ago can produce a therapeutic echinacea flower if only we have the patience and stillness to let the past break down—to discard the unusable parts, and sift through to find the portions that are still nutrient-rich and ready to contribute to the marvel of growing something new and beautiful.

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