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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Handiwork


I dreamed about the days when girls were set to stitching samplers before they were twelve years old, learning the tiny, fine, even stitches by a stern mistress who made them unpick every uneven attempt until was perfect. I do not want to have to apprentice that way! No, I and my contemporaries are relearning handwork, but we are not about to submit to all that practice.

I decided I had to learn how to crochet an afghan when I learned I was about to be a grandmother. Quick! I took a vacation to Southern California where my Auntie Vi, in her 90s, was busy making afghan after beautiful afghan, lush colors, intricate patterns, incredible artistry. “Teach me how,” I begged.

She made me crochet long strings of chain stitches until after an hour or so I thought they were even enough that I wanted her to teach me the next step. She was reluctant. She had learned by doing long strings for days, probably weeks, maybe even months. I didn’t have that much time until the baby would be here, and I was determined that the baby would be wrapped in an afghan made by me. Besides, I was going to be at her house only a few more days. “Please?”


She taught me the next step, and then a simple pattern. I went home and made a little “Mile-a-Minute” afghan in pinks and pastels and whites. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t even a really good job. In fact, it was definitely a first project—like a first draft. But it would have to do.


I have since made more of them, all simple patterns, for various family members. Auntie Vi said when I was ready, she would teach me how to do the intricate pineapple afghan. I don’t think I will ever be ready.

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to teach her how to make that “Mile-a-Minute” afghan that she had seen me working on once when I was carrying my crocheting around with me everywhere. She wanted to make one for her son and one for her daughter, and she had not crocheted anything since the simple potholder she had learned decades ago as a teenager. I went to her house and started to teach her the pattern. She had some difficulty with it, because she was so rusty on the basic stitches necessary. But we don’t have time for her to practice, or apprentice, or anything like that. She has only a short time left to live, and if the afghans are going to be done, they have to be done quickly. She is doing the cores and I’m doing the wrap-around parts. It’s symbolic, we decided: she’s the heart of the project.

Another friend came over today to have my mother teach her how to embroider something special she is making for a family member. My mother sat with her for three hours this morning, and when the friend left, she said she was a very, very quick learner and was getting it done faster than my mother would have been able to do. She said our friend told her, “This has to go fast. I’m very impatient, and if it goes slowly, I won’t do it.”

This is the way handwork gets done in my circles. We live fast and then run out of time and realize that we have not left anything of the lovely things like our grandmothers and great-aunts and so forth left for us to enjoy. Or an important event is coming right up and we simply must have a project ready for it. We rush to learn! We rush to finish!

If we keep making projects (if we have time), we might begin to approach the level of excellence probably achieved by our grandmothers when they approached their teen years. I dare say not many of our handwork projects would win a prize, but I am betting they will be prized anyway.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Travel Plans: Armchair Version

Overseas air travel and I no longer mix well.

There was a time when there was nothing I liked better than to be getting on an airplane, anticipating adventures of all kinds: wonderful new places to see, new people to meet, foods to try, languages and culture to soak in.

I remember one business trip I took across the country, when the flight attendants were, indeed, very attentive even in the coach class cabin where I sat, and when I had the whole row to myself because it seemed as if there never was a plane fully booked.

The best days were those when I packed everything I needed for five weeks in Britain into one carry-on and stowed it under the seat ahead of me, and I still had plenty of room to stretch my feet out onto the top of my bag that served me for a footrest.

I loved the thrill of being just in time to catch my plane; one time on a business trip I remember running the length of the airport to a plane being held for me, attendants and officials running with me so that I had an entire entourage all to myself as I ran up the steps to get into the plane. My! How important I seemed!

One morning my friend and I were returning from Britain to the U.S. and had taken the train into London from Oxford early in order to catch our flight. We had an entire extra half hour that we just couldn’t waste in being early to check in to the airport, so we hopped on a bus and went to the old Tate Gallery, darted inside, ran back to the back room where the Pre-Raphaelites were, feasted our eyes one last time on The Lady of Shallot, and then dashed back to another bus to Heathrow, and when we checked in we found we had been bumped—but they put us back on in first class—wow. We luxuriated in huge recliner seats, slippers for our feet, extra food and drinks, and all the attention we most certainly didn’t deserve but serendipitously were entitled to receive that day.

Everybody seemed cheerful in those days, and once when I had to undergo a pat search in Heathrow on my way home, it was a really big deal to me, something extremely out of the ordinary. Even now I wonder how I could ever have looked remotely like a threat in those days, in my conservative blue suit jacket and skirt, the blouse with the tiny lavender flowers and ruffle down the side front where the buttons were, my long hair and wedged sandals.

Then I began to get a complex: I was always being singled out for extra security measures in the pre-9/11 decade. I’d have to answer extra questions or take off my jacket or sweater and undergo the pat search, it seemed like every time I flew anywhere. My business colleagues joked all the time about me being a secret hijacker. In those days we could visualize a secret government list of suspected problem travelers as something out of fantasy fiction—it would never happen in real life where we lived in the Land of the Free.

The weekend before that terrible Tuesday of September 11, 2001, we flew to Oregon for a family reunion. I was coming straight to the airport from work, and somehow in all the rush, I had left all my identification except my work badge at home. At the airport I found my mistake. I was very disappointed in myself, but I was getting resigned to having to go home and get it and fly later to join my family. But the officials decided to let me go with my family—so I flew without proper identification, knowing I had been given a break. When we checked in to come back home, the officials at the Portland airport didn’t want to let me fly, but since the officials at the originating airport had let me, they relented. Two mornings later came the attacks, and I realized that my experience of that past weekend was closed behind a door that would never open again.

Another thing I couldn’t imagine was how cramped I would become flying in coach class. In most of my traveling life I was crowded only when I got stuck between two heavy people, or one who took all his own room and then encroached on my space too.

But on our way home from Israel, the last overseas trip we took, our lack of room was a nightmare. We were wedged into the very last row of the airplane, so our seats did not recline. The people in front of us reclined their seats into our faces and knees, and we could not move. The flight was 14 hours. I slept not a wink, feeling claustrophobic, cramped, sore, and unable to do a thing about it except crochet as fast as possible to take my mind off my discomfort and my husband’s knee pain.

My mother and I tried to get my dad to go with us to Spain one Christmas to see my sister, who worked near Madrid at the time. Then we were going to drive with her through northern Spain, seeing castles and beautiful towns, along the French coast to Calais and take the ferry to England to drive to Oxford to see my dad’s sister and her husband—people he would have liked to see. But he would not fly. The trip was not worth the discomfort of getting there and the worry about his health while away from home and all that was familiar. I couldn’t understand him at the time, but now I think I do.

My mother has become averse to overseas travel as well. When we thought we would go to Ireland last year, she said she would be happier to stay home and watch travel videos instead. I was amazed. Then last St. Patrick’s Day we watched a PBS marathon of travel videos about Ireland and I realized that my mother was getting an education through the extensive narration necessary to a PBS-quality travel show, something you don’t get when you are on your own traveling about, and even if you are with a tour, the quality of the content not always what you thought you paid for.

The irreplaceable aspects of travel are the great foods, the wonderful people you meet, and the feeling you get for another type of life. These things I have stored in my memory, and my memory is happily full of marvelous experiences. I had hoped to travel more, but the combinations of economics, politics, and age are taking their toll and making that armchair travel more attractive every day.

Thank heavens for what Emily Dickinson expressed this way: “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.”

Monday, February 7, 2011

Lessons in Miracles

A woman I know is dying, she has been told, of an aggressive form of cancer. She still looks well and seems to have energy. She spoke to the Relief Society this past Sunday about her journey from health to death sentence, chronicling for us how she dealt with each step along the road with a mixture of faith and trepidation; of denial and then wonder and the blessings of “tender mercies.” I loved her story, although I certainly don’t like it that she is having to leave seemingly so much earlier than we usually expect.

She said that a blessing she received long ago talked about how she would live a “long and useful” life. She mentioned that a friend told her she thought that 50 years was a long life. Oh my! How we laughed nervously to hear that; the median age in our Relief Society when I moved here 16 years ago was the early 30s and of course is getting older all the time, so a lot of us laughed more than the younger women, who probably thought 50 is old.

One of the crucial things my friend talked about was how to approach this thing. She quoted Elder Richard G. Scott, who said this:

“Just when all seems to be going right, challenges often come in multiple doses applied simultaneously. When those trials are not consequences of your disobedience, they are evidence that the Lord feels you are prepared to grow more (see Prov. 3:11–12). He therefore gives you experiences that stimulate growth, understanding, and compassion which polish you for your everlasting benefit. To get you from where you are to where He wants you to be requires a lot of stretching, and that generally entails discomfort and pain” [“Trust in the Lord,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 16; see www.lds.org].

I am reminded of what C.S. Lewis said about the same thing, referring to an old George MacDonald parable, “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building up a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” [from Mere Christianity]

The thing I learned from what my friend said to us is that it can be stupendously uncomfortable to try to bend your will to the will of God. But I think it is worth trying, always trying. Certainly I fall short every day; I have plans and habits and things that I’m not yet willing to give up. I’m working on them. I’m sure I’ll always be working on this project until I die, but the more I work on it maybe the closer I’ll get to what the Lord wants me to be. I find that there is where my true happiness lies. When I feel that I’m actually close to doing His will, that’s when I’m most comfortable, the most me.

I had a near death experience not just once but several times. I don’t have great health, but I do all right. The times I came close to death, and the one time I came very, very close, I saw and experienced enough to take the fear of it right away forever. I actually look forward to the time when it is the right time for me to go. But I hope I’ll feel halfway ready. Or a quarter! That’s my only “fear” with death—have I loved people like I should have? Have I done what I could have for them?

My friend expressed amazing faith and hope concerning her experience now. She feels it is the right time for her to go. She feels good about it—only regretting having to leave her family and her nearly-grown children. Yes, that is my regret. No matter how much faith I have, parting is painful, especially when it is for the rest of someone’s mortal life. I know the one left in mortality will feel the pain much more and will have the harder time dealing with it.

When it’s me being left behind, I know what grief tastes and feels like. I know I can get through it, but it cannot be described as an easy thing. When I think of leaving my husband and my son, I have a very different feeling: worry!

Another story my friend cited was of a woman who wrote a book about a terrible experience she had had to undergo. When people told her how brave she was being and how God never gives us burdens or trials that we cannot bear, she learned to disagree. He does give us trials that sometimes are way too heavy for us to bear—on our own. But if we will rely on Christ to carry our burdens, we then can get through the ones that are too hard for us alone. This opened up a new line of thinking for me, and it confirmed what I had vaguely started to realize some time ago about the nature of mortal trials.

I am never alone, unless I cut myself off and choose that ultimate loneliness. Instead, when I open myself up to the growth that God knows I can achieve by aligning my will to His, I do achieve.

Miracles happen, and one miracle can be me.