Mindful Mending

I have been thinking about sewing lately – mending specifically.  A couple of weeks ago, I came across a book that caught my eye, Mending Life A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nina and Sonya Montenegro.  It’s cover is patterned and embossed.  I have always been attracted to that type of patchwork – collage style.  Something about the tactile diversity calls to me. The book is as much poetry and personal narrative as it is about actually sewing.  It is so inventive – weaving equal parts of story, poetry, drawings, and sewing together.  I had never seen a book quite like it.  I was enticed and started reading.  The authors’ words calmed and centered me.  I began recalling my history with thread and needle.  Funny how some things you loved to do in the past fade from memory, and then are quickly rekindled with a smell, an object, or a phrase. 

Before my mother became a teacher, she was a seamstress.  She worked to contribute to her family and put her two brothers and then her husband through college.  She was amazingly gifted.  She could look at a piece of fabric, fold it, pin it, cut it without a pattern and produce a blouse, a skirt, a dress, or a jacket.  My sister and I would watch her as if she were a magician – and she was.  She taught me to hem, put on a button, attach a zipper and sleeves.  I became interested in embroidery in my early teens.  I’d spend hours making designs on pillows, t-shirts and many of my jeans.  I wish I had kept those pieces and repurposed them.  I have one faded light green burlap pillow that made for my mom.  It is not my best work, it was one of my first, and I will always treasure it.

I continued with embroidery into college and young adulthood.  Embroidery helped me to stay centered. It calmed my mind. It helped me focus.  I entered the flow of the stitches, the lines and curves of the pattern, the feel of the needle sliding through the fabric.  One of my English professors invited us to create an artwork instead of a paper on Chekov for one assignment.  I took a big risk and embroidered a scene from The Cherry Orchard.  It wasn’t a perfect piece, but it did show that I took tremendous time to create the design and execute the stitches.  I got an A+, and the professor showcased it at our next session.  To my surprise, no one else had taken the art challenge that is why he added the plus. He wanted to reward risk-taking.  His message was loud and clear, and my classmates started to be bold and creative.  More inventive projects came pouring in that semester.

In my twenties, I went to see Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum.  I was astounded by her ceramic designs and needlework.  At the end of the exhibit, there was an announcement about Judy’s next endeavor – The Birth Project.  She was looking for quilters and embroiderers.  I quickly wrote down the information, went home and began producing embroidery samples to submit.  To my great surprise, I was accepted and I worked on a piece called “The Crowning,” for over a year and a half, meeting periodically with the other quilters and Judy when she visited New York.  That was a great experience for me.  I found a community of stitchers from all walks of life.  I also wrote a poem called “Power,” that Judy included in The Birth Project book. And I began to think that my life would turn toward the arts and crafting.

But it did not.  Like my mother, I turned toward teaching.  I continued to create with my students.  I kept containers of threads, needles, fabric, embroidery hoops, yarn for my students to experiment with.  For all the years I taught 2nd and 3rd grade, my classes would create story quilts.  We’d read Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold and a whole cavalcade of picture books about quilts and quilting. Yes, it is chaotic to stitch with twenty 7 and 8-year old children, but it is joyful too.  We’d sit in a large circle and attend to our stitching, everyone concentrating, everyone quiet.  We became a community in a way that we hadn’t been before.  We were creating something together, something that would be joined together.  When the quilts were completed, we presented them to the parents and our school community. I still have a couple of the quilts, but the majority of them were stolen from my car one year.  I always wondered what the thief did with a pile of children’s quilts.  There’s a story in that!

The Sewing Corner in The Wonder Lab

For the last twenty years, I’ve been stitching on paper using embellishments of buttons and beads and shells.  I enjoy taking a traditional art and seeing what I can do to change it, to make it my own.  I do these projects purely for myself.  I love choosing the colors and textures of paper.  I pour over the many different threads and floss I marry into the design.  The buttons and beads are a particular favorite.  One year, while vacationing I Vermont, I found a woman who made her own clay buttons.  They were rustic, asymmetrical, and perfect. 

I don’t embroider or mend as much as I would like to.  It seems there never is enough time.  I’m usually rushing and sewing is a slow activity.  I guess that is why I was attracted to Mending Life.  It was that object that sparked the memories that are in my hands.  Embroidery is an integral part of my life almost like writing is, but I didn’t realize that until this week, until I read the Montenegro sisters’ words:

Making something whole again is also a form of healing, and we humans have a deep desire to heal what is broken.  Learning to mend gives us a new lens through which to problem solve.  A garment or belonging we thought was beyond repair is now stitched back together by our own two hands and we discover we are more resilient than we thought.

That’s what kept me reading – that desire to heal myself and our country.  I wanted a blueprint on how to mend, how to put pieces back together, how to repair something, extend its life, make it last.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when the Montenegro’s talk about “A Spirit of Play.”  They recount how their father who was a carpenter and an artist, repaired everything in their home. He used bright red thread to repair watches, baskets, spoons, chairs, and his old brown leather belt.  By using the bright red thread he was celebrating rather than hiding the flaw.  I love this idea.  Don’t be bashful, bring attention to the old and broken – create it anew. 

Mr. Montenegro’s red thread was its own version of the Japanese ceramic repair process called kintsugi.  Broken pottery is repaired with gold lacquer, which highlight the mend instead of trying to make it invisible.  This makes the piece unique and beautiful in its own right. Kate Roberts also speaks of the healing power of kintsugi in her book, A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching and Choice.  She artfully and thoughtfully explains:  The metaphor is an easy one: we embrace the flaws in our lives; we make beauty of the breaks. The reality is harder. My father couldn’t do it. His cracks grew over the years and even as he saw his life breaking apart, all he could do was lament what could have been. I have tried to learn from him. I have tried to use my cracks to become more open than I was, more empathic… I have tried to fill the breaks with gold.

I love this idea of repairing, mending, stitching together with “gold,” so the broken thing becomes beautiful and whole again.  Maybe that was why I was drawn to sewing and embroidery all along.  Maybe I was trying to repair my broken parts, trying to make something new and useful and unique.

One of my paper quilts, Five Buttons
 Mindful Mending
 
 Clothes sit in a pile
 On the edge of my bed,
 Waiting for attention.
 I sit down next to them:
 The khakis with the torn hem,
 The sweater missing its button,
 The shirt that split it’s seam,
 The sock with a hole in its toe,
 The old pair of worn-out jeans
 With a huge tear in one knee.
  
 I take a deep breath,
 I rather be doing something else,
 I inhale again… and exhale,
 I refocus my attention,
 Pick up the pants,
 Examine the hem,
 Thread the needle with
 As close a khaki colored thread
 As I can find – and start.
 I pierce the supple surface 
 Down and up, down and up again and again
 The thread slides through the fabric
 Until the hem secured.
  
  
 My hands take up the sweater
 It is my favorite: black, red, and white
 Thick and warm from Norway
 With embossed silver buttons
 One is missing now
 I find another in my button box
 It is not quite the same
 Will anyone notice?
 Does it matter? Do I care?
 I snip off the top button
 And put it in the place of the missing one
 Then I take the mismatched button
 And place it on top in full view
 Like that’s where it was meant to be
 I wrap heavy black floss around and around
 The button shank keeping it 
 Snug - sure not to fall off.
  
 My husband’s blue striped dress shirt
 With it’s tiny split seam is next
 I hold it up to my nose
 It smells like him
 I take a deep breath,
 I’m doing something for someone I love,
 I inhale again… and exhale,
 I refocus my attention,
 I find delicate white cotton thread
 And another sharp needle
 I concentrate on make tiny
 Identical stitches one after another
 After another until it is complete.
  
 There’s my old worn sock
 I take it in hands and examine it
 Is it worth keeping?
 The hole is quite large
 But the rest of the sock is perfect
 And they are my warmest
 They make my feet happy
 I search for charcoal gray yarn.
 But find only Prussian Blue.
 I begin to knit with my darning needle
 Chains of wool connecting loops
 Upon connecting loops
 This work is different
 I am not so much as attaching
 As I am creating more material
 I am making a toe-shaped space
 Prussian blue, all its own.
  
 My mending pile is gone
 Only my worn jeans are left
 The tear is huge and threatens
 To extend mid-shin.
 The fabric is flimsy and thin
 I think a patch is possible.
 I place a pretty blue and pink print
 Underneath the tear 
 Stitching it quickly in place
 Then I take up an abundance
 Of pastel floss and create blossoms
 Around the knee and down
 Along one side of my pants leg
 I keep adding flower upon flower
 Pink, yellow, blue, pale peach,
 A vine of mint green winds in and out
 My needle pokes and pierces,
 Loops and slides until it is picture perfect.
 My mending is done for the day.
 I take a deep breath.
 I inhale again… and exhale,
 I refocus my attention.
 
 
Mending Still Life

Books About Mending

  1. Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy by Rebecca Burgess
  2. Fix Your Clothes: The Sustainable Magic of Mending, Patching, and Darning
  3. by Raleigh Briggs
  4. Joyful Mending: Visible Repairs for the Perfectly Imperfect Things We Love by Noriko Misumi
  5. Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto by Kate Sekules
  6. Mending Life: A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nin and Sonya Montenegro
  7. Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch, and Repair Your Favorite Denim & More by Katrina Rodabaugh
  8. Modern Mending by Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald
  9. Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art by Claire Wellesley-Smith
  10. The Geometry of Hand-Sewing by Natalie Chanin
  11. The Hand-stitched Surface by Lynn Krawczyk
  12. Wear, Repair, Repurpose by Lily Fulop
  13. Wild Dyer by Abigail Booth
  14. What Will These Hands Make? by Nikki McClure

Quilt Books for Children

  1. Cassie’s Word Quilt by Faith Ringgold
  2. Early American Patchwork Quilt Designs by Susan Johnston       
  3. Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet by Ann Whitford Paul
  4. Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt by Lisa Campbell Ernst
  5. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson
  6. Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
  7. Texas Star by Barbara Hancock Cole
  8. The Bedspread by Sylvia Fair
  9. The Josefina Story Quilt by Bruce Degen
  10. The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
  11. The Patchwork Farmer by Craig Brown
  12. The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud
  13. The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy  
  14. The Quilt by Ann Jonas
  15. The Quilt Story by Tony Johnston
  16. The Seasons Sewn by Ann Whitford Paul   

Belonging

Oxford defines belonging as an affinity for a place or situation. Webster says it means a possession or a close or intimate relationship.  I’ve been reflecting on what it means to belong this week. I am getting older.  I could and have said this at any age, but now approaching sixty-five, now it is a very true statement. I feel it, especially with the holidays upon us and my family members quarantined and scattered across the country. Actually, I have yearned to belong since I was quite young.  It’s a human thing.  We all need connection.  And I have found innumerable ways to do it.  Teaching was the perfect profession for me.  I am very grateful for that. This week, I sent off a small army of 4th grade girls with shoe boxes filled with junk for them to explore.  For the last few days, I’ve been receiving emails and even a video recounting the fun they have had and the wonderful inventions they created from their personal trove of junk. This is what is important.  Creativity connects us.  Imagination is key.

I’ve also had time this week to reflect on just how I belong in the world.  This place, this place I’ve known for six and a half decades is becoming increasingly complex and enigmatic. I try hard to make sense of it, but I feel the world’s tug. I feel it pulling me down.  Then I realize the political and social world is just a human construct.  It is not the true world.  Our Earth is the true world, and I’ve lost the connection to it a bit allowing myself to get too busy teaching and managing daily life.   So I reminded myself that I must go back to the woods: search for the turkeys, gaze at the ravens wheeling in the gray sky. Nature has always been a healing place for me; a place that encourages my curiosity.  And this too I will share with my students.  Maybe we will collect items for a nature box: acorns, sticks, smooth stones, dried flowers and leaves, and a wild assortment of other bracken.  I have already spent the better part of an hour this week standing in a parking lot in the dark under some honey locust trees collecting their long, gently curving, velvety, deep purple seedpods. I’m imagining all types of things the children can make with them. 

It’s more critical than ever that we help children connect to the living world. It is integral to them becoming whole, healthy people who can manage stressors and show compassion.  I’ve been a long-time proponent of eliminating nature-deficit disorder,” a term coined by author Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Over the years, I’ve provided experiences with nature to my students, even my students who lived in New York City.  I made sure they had regular contact with trees, flowers, and animals.  I knew that these connections were important for both their intellectual and social-emotional growth. Indeed, one parent quipped one day that the best part of 3rd grade for her son was that he learned to climb a tree! The once timid boy became intrepid and had a powerful sense of himself.

More books by Richard Louv:

  • Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life
  • The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life int he Virtual Age
  • Our Wild Calling: How connecting with animals can transform our lives and save theirs

A Dozen Nature Picture Books for Children:

  1. A Stone Sat Still by Brendon Wetzel
  2. Butterfly Park by Elly Mackay
  3. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  4. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
  5. Pax by Sara Penny Packer
  6. Rocks in his Head by Carol Otis Hurst
  7. The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
  8. The Hike by Alison Farrell
  9. The Hugging Tree: A Story about Resilience by Jill Neimark
  10. The Keeper of Wild Words by Brooke Smith
  11. The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes
  12. The Tin Forest by Helen Ward

In our regular weekly phone conversations, my friend, Molly and I ponder the possible. We talk about teaching, art, and healing.  She tells of a walk she recently took with her brother at a nearby nature preserve.  She describes an old bathtub she found on the trail, and my poet mind start running.  I’m already composing as she speaks.  Then she says she has taken photos of it and would like me to use it as a prompt for writing with her Kindergarteners.  I promise to do so, and we ponder why a bathtub would be sitting serenely in the middle of a trail. When I get off the phone with Molly, I know the bathtub poem is in me and will come out in a couple of days.  It sits in my mind, constructing itself in various ways: a branch here, a new shoot there, a winding vine curving and turning until it is ready to come out onto the page.

 We Belong Here
  
 For Molly
  
 I
  
 At the nature preserve
 Right in the middle of the cleared trail -
 The red path, not the blue one,
 There is an old white rusted bathtub,
 My dear friend tells me.
 Right there in the middle of the path,
 Right there with nothing else around it
 Just woods on either side,
 Thick, thorny undergrowth,
 Mounds of fall leaves
 Now becoming muddled and colorless,
 Skeletons of themselves really.
 What is the bathtub doing there?
 Who would leave a tub in the woods?
 We ponder and wonder.
 There is a small shack nearby,
 But it stands on the bank of the river
 And the bathtub sits squat
 In the middle of the trail
 On a ridge overlooking the river.
 Most times the tub is filled
 With a puddle of rainwater
 Or an assortment of leaves, seeds, and acorns.
 It has been there a very long time.
 It has no intention of moving.
 It has planted its rusty feet 
 firmly in the ground.
 It belongs there.
  
     II
  
 I have a sudden urge
 To run full tilt down the path -
 The red trail, not the blue one,
 Breathing in the trees,
 All the musty ancient smells,
 Hear the gurgle burbling of the river.
 I rush down the path,
 Leap with all my might,
 Hurdle myself toward the tub,
 Landing gently into its abundance:
 Soft pine needles and dusty leaves,
 Landing softly in the autumnal spa,
 Covered in its natural warmth
 Almost up to my chin,
 Sinking down into the tub
 Soaking in the woods, the air, the river
 My head tilted up to the blue sky,
 Every one of my muscles relaxing.
 I have no intention of moving.
 My feet are firmly planted.
 I belong here.
   

How Does Your Zen Garden Grow?

As I look towards the end of August, cognizant that my new school year is on the horizon whether it is virtual or in-person, I am committed to keep cultivating my own garden.  By this I mean I want to keep in the forefront of my mind, my health, my writing, my artistic expression, and my connection to friends and family.  It has not always been easy for me to have clear boundaries between work and my personal life.  For decades, I put my work before everything else.  Oh sure, I talked about balance, but I really didn’t know how to achieve it.  How do I juggle a great jumble of responsibilities?  How do I prioritize?  What do I need to do to be successful?  I struggled and struggled with these questions.  I read about how to reduce stress.  I practiced tai chi and yoga.  I drank gallons of steaming chamomile tea.  I smiled. I sang several choruses of, “Let it Go” loudly in the shower.  Still, I felt like the sword of Damocles was constantly dangling over my head. I talked to family. I talked to friends.  Everyone felt the same way.  Everyone had the same strategies. They worked on the surface, but I still felt stressed and anxious.

I turned towards my faith. I prayed for wisdom and insight. I knew that if I didn’t find a way to deal productively with my stress, I would continue to damage my health and relationships.  I’ve watched the failing health of my parents and in-laws as they aged, and I know life is so fragile, so short, so precious.  By continuing to load up my life with endless activities and packed schedules, I was playing a dangerous game.  I was slowly and surely depleting my quality of life.  On the outside, I looked like I was handling my hectic life quite well.  But I knew I wasn’t.  I knew I was over-eating, not sleeping, constantly worrying. I knew if I really loved myself that I had to stop.  Stop immediately, stop without question.

So that’s what I did little by little, I learned to focus on myself, I began to write more consistently.  I read books that interested me, not just books for education.  I made an effort to eat nourishing food and get daily exercise.  In the months that followed, I felt more and more in control.  I stopped worrying about what people thought of me.  I asked myself:  What makes you happy?  What do you want to create?  What is important to you?  And as I pondered these questions, I stopped juggling all the unimportant, distracting minutia.

Even though I haven’t had a chance to travel as I normally would this summer, I have been productive.  I connected with old acquaintances, read books that I have wanted to read for a long time, began to draw and paint again, and began to organize my copious files of photographs. I also made time to walk and bike. I feel I’m ready for the gauntlet that will be this school year.  I’ve been thinking about how to ensure this inner peace I’ve sown will continue.  I want to stay mindful and positive.

I started compiling books and materials that will help me remember to keep my health first and to prioritize what’s most important to me in my life at this very moment in time.  I call these items my Zen Toolbox. If you’d like, take some time and create your own toolbox to help keep you calm, centered, and in the present.

ZEN TOOLBOX

1. The Little Book of Joy by Bill Zimmerman
A terrific little journal where I record my thoughts and insights to the writing prompts.
2. The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
A wonderful book by Ryan Holiday on ways to surmount obstacles and make problems into possibilities.
3. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg                           
An invaluable book about how to write using the mindful, Zen approach getting to the heart of the story.
4. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackery
A wonderful children’s book, but really a book for all ages about the resilience needed to live a joyful life.
5. Write the Poem (Piccadilly)
A little journal I found in a thrift store which has a poem topic and suggested vocabulary on each page.  It is a more structured way to approach poetry, and I was pleasantly surprised by the practice.
6. Drawn to Nature by Holly Ward Bimba
A journal and sketch set that focuses on drawing the natural world.
7. Buddha Board
A small painting easel that allows you to paint with water, so your masterpiece is fleeting, but very enjoyable.
8. Joy of Zen Tangles by Marie Browning
A way of doodling that is systematic and teaches how to create various perspectives.
9. A Collection of Notebooks
I love collecting beautiful notebooks.  I’m making a commitment to writing in them more consistently and thoroughly.
10. Music & Meditation: My favorites – King & Country, Lauren Daigle, Andean Flute music, and Guided Mindfulness Mediation – Jon Kabat-Zinn 

Zen Garden

Sitting low on a wooden bench

Looking out on the Zen garden,

My thoughts circle and release,

Circle and release,

Circle and drift

Around the islands in my mind.

A young girl runs to the edge of garden,

“What’s a Zen garden, Dad,” she asks.

Her father looks out,

Shrugs his shoulders and says,

“A Bunch of rocks…

A bunch of rocks.

His teenage son smirks,

Glancing at the garden and declares,

“They did a nice job making the rocks.”

And slouches away.

My mind settles on the center stone,

I take in its contours,

I memorize its lines and creases,

Its cracks and crevices,

Its shape, color, texture –

Every wrinkle.

I exhale one long, low breath.

Two young women walk in front of me,

Look out and pause for a moment,

“Do you feel Zen?” one says to the other

“Nope,” says the other with a giggle

And they bounce off.

I open myself to the sea of sand,

Perfect concentric circles,

A solitary island

at peace.