Climb Every Mountain: a Quilt Story

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Have you ever felt you are exactly where you need to be in the universe? If so, you will understand how I feel when I look at the Climb Every Mountain quilt that hangs majestically on cousin Norma’s huge wall above her king-sized bed. Her sister, Linda, made the quilt and though I’ve never asked Linda, I feel certain she chose that pattern because Norma has climbed so many mountains in her lifetime.

She and Linda grew up with their parents on a small family dairy farm in Cherry Valley, in New York’s lower Catskill Mountains. If you’ve never heard of this town with about 1,000 residents, it was settled by Anglo-Scottish settlers in 1739. It’s best known, unfortunately, for a horrific bloodbath, the Cherry Valley Massacre, during the Revolutionary War, fought by the Seneca and Mohawk Indians against the British Loyalists.

Life there was peaceful as Norma grew up, though, and she became fascinated with the earth that surrounded her. I didn’t know Norma then (her father and my former mother-in-law were siblings) yet in my mind’s eye I easily see her endlessly exploring the hills and meadows on the farm with quiet fascination. After high school, she went to Alaska for an advanced degree and became a geologist, studying rocks all over the world that told her much about how our earth was created. The only continent she has not visited is Australia.

Norma’s work brought her to the Las Vegas desert a few decades ago and she settled here, then retired a few years ago. Her desert home is a living, breathing reflection of her love for the earth: outside, the house is surrounded with rocks and desert plants, landscaping that Norma has done over the years she’s been here. Inside her home, reside more rocks, many with fossils, quietly sitting in nooks and crannies, on shelves, window ledges, and some gathered in boxes on a floor. If you look closely at the headboard in the picture, you’ll see a pint Mason jar. It contains ashes from Mount Saint Helens.

After retirement, Norma continued her world travels, hiking into new places and climbing more mountains. Last Thanksgiving she flew to Virginia to spend the holiday with our small family. It was a memorable several days: making seven pies the night before Thanksgiving (for six people), hiking, catching up after many months, and simply enjoying each other’s company.

During her Virginia stay with us Norma mentioned experiencing numbness in her right arm and soon, after returning to Las Vegas, went to a doctor. Within a few days of testing, Norma learned she had glioblastoma, stage IV brain cancer. We were all stunned, not Norma, who had one of the best brains in the family, who had always led a super healthy lifestyle. It was irrational thinking in those first days; we simply couldn’t process it. Until everything changed very quickly: surgery that removed much but not all of the cancer, plans for treatment, a flight to Houston for a second opinion, a return home when they could offer no more than Las Vegas, chemo and radiation simultaneously that have been completed today, seizures that left her right side partially non-functional, and most recently, clots in her lungs, which are now dissipating.

My daughter, Susan, stayed with Norma during the past six weeks, then needed to return home. On Easter Sunday I flew in to stay indefinitely. I had known on a visceral level that I would share this journey with her.

Now, as Norma climbs the most difficult mountain of her life, we’re able to walk together for part of her journey. As she has done all her life when she quietly and determinedly reached for each of her goals, she is working very hard. We all affirm she will overcome this profoundly unwelcome stranger in our midst.

There is still that one more continent to explore.

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Some Thoughts on Kindness

If ever you feel a need for an infusion of kindness, I have a recommendation for you. For those who know me, you are aware that kindness is a high-priority personal value of mine. Recently, while searching my library for books about kindness, I discovered a tiny treasure. The cover, simple yet intriguing with cursive letters, announced: Congratulations, by the way: some thoughts on kindness by George Saunders. What I found inside the thin book, slightly larger than my Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style was, surprisingly, a commencement address given by Professor of English George Saunders to the Syracuse University convocation ceremony in May, 2013. The pairing of a graduation address with the value of kindness seemed incongruous to me. Not for long though.

Saunders’ introductory words were:   

   Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is:

   Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).    

   And I intend to respect that tradition.

Saunders then described some common regrets he might have had, as some of his peers had, but did not. Instead, he recalled a girl, Ellen (pseudonym), who came to his school in the 7th grade. Ellen wore blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it. She became a target of teasing and/or silence by her peers. And then one day Ellen was gone as abruptly as she had appeared.

Saunders continued:

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

His remaining words were deeply moving, and I wondered how they might have impacted me if spoken to my graduating class. Later, Saunders’ message was published on The New York Times webpage. Within days it had been re-posted more than a million times and led to book publication, which I discovered shortly thereafter.

I’ve re-read Congratulations… so many times. The address itself is easy to find online and takes just fifteen minutes to read. Each re-read fills my heart with the wish to be kinder and an impetus to do a kindness that day.

If you’ve not read the full commencement address, here is the heart of Saunders’ challenge:

Find out what makes you kinder, what opens you up and brings out the most loving, generous, and unafraid version of you—and go after those things as if nothing else matters.

Because, actually, nothing else does.

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Wisdom of the Palm Tree

Blogger Friends, I lay no claim to being a poet. These are simply wise words I heard the palms whisper to me. —Lake Worth, FL – 2.15.15

Wisdom of the Palm Tree

Graceful palms, you speak to me today
Beneath warm sunshine
And a gentle breeze that
Causes you to gently sway.

You willingly bend wherever
The breeze takes you and
With whatever comes your way
Just like a willow.

When hurricanes come, I watch
You bow beneath the whipping winds that
Nearly break you at times, yet you remain
Always graceful despite the frantically snapping air.

You have no inner voice that rants,
“Why me? This is not fair!”
You bow and bend with whatever life brings,
Freely sharing your wisdom: what is, is.

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Unfinished Projects

During the past half-century (has it really been that long?) I have enjoyed creating so many kinds of craft projects: sewing, quilting, knitting, crocheting, cross-stitch, candle-making, macramé, creating and selling children’s Quiet Time Books to teach fine motor skills such as buttoning, zippering, connecting Velcro, and more. Today, knitting and quilting are the two I still give much time to and, as with most crafters, you may not be surprised to hear that I have a few uncompleted projects tucked away. Last September I wrote about one of those projects in my Rising from Dark Places post.

Toward the end of last year, I knew I would not put up my artificial Christmas tree, so I pulled out a Christmas tree wall hanging I’d started more than five years ago. I’d found the pattern in a 1995 book by Debbie Munn: Quick Country Christmas Quilts. The tree was simple and, aside from the quilted hanging, it gave instructions for several small ornaments to hang on the buttons of the branches. Their creation was, for me, nothing short of a child’s delight in play.

Now, several days into this new year, the tree still hangs on the wall, swelling my heart with much pleasure whenever I look at it. Perhaps that’s, in part, because I’ve always loved the simplistic pattern. More, it’s also that I finally completed it. It’s so true, is it not? Good things often take more time than we might think.

That thought led me to ponder my memoir, a project I’ve worked at off and on for more than a decade. I completed the full draft and some revisions mid-last year, then sent it to an editor who gave me wonderful feedback (she liked it!) and revision suggestions. Just as I was digging in to revise, life intervened and I shelved the story again. For three months the large apricot colored binder with its thick manuscript quietly rested on my desk. It often reminded me of the bread dough that regularly and silently rises on my kitchen counter. After the right amount of time, the dough transforms beneath the towel that covers it and is ready to transform into its final product.

Within me, a similar process has been going on these recent months, as well. The story is nearly always present in my heart. During the months I have rested from it, the wonderful internal process of writing has brought an abundance of new ideas for content and structure, and I’ve jotted each down. I’m ready now to start what will be my final revision before I seek a publisher (or decide to self publish.) Today I will open the manuscript again to weave the new ideas into the present fabric of words.

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Good things can often take more time than we might think. And sometimes that’s perfectly okay.

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A Tale of Three Christmas Trees

 

This year our family was scattered for the holidays, so my son, Chip, and I planned to share a non-traditional meal on Christmas afternoon: I’d make creamed turkey with veggies, he’d make crepes, and we’d have cranberry sauce on the side. A few days before Christmas, he called to ask if I’d like to split the three large stacks of wood on my property on Christmas afternoon. A friend had loaned us his splitter.

“That’s great. Yes,” I replied, smiling with anticipation.

Aesthetically, I love to look at woodpiles, especially when they are neatly cut chunks tidily stacked. A year ago, we had made three stacks in the yard: one by the stream (a fallen tree), one by the woods I call The Glen, and a third (diseased by years of poison ivy rope strangulation), in a grassy space near the road. Whenever I went outside, my eyes fastened on the beauty of the wood walls, and I felt much pleasure in the beautiful symmetry of the stacked circles. Now, after months of providing serene splendor in the yard, it was time for their next life season: providing heat.

The day was surprisingly warm and sunny, about 60 degrees. Chip arrived, checked the splitter’s gas tank, and found it empty. He knew I always have an extra gas can handy, but today it was empty. Nearby gas stations were closed. Fortunately our next idea proved fruitful: we found some gas (maybe a gallon) in the riding mower, siphoned it out, filled the splitter, and got to work. Chip loaded the chunks on the platform (the hard work) and I ran the hydraulic wedge back and forth (the easy work.) Soon, we got into an easy rhythm and I was running the wedge back and forth non-stop. But moments of unease nagged at me as I wondered if we had enough gas. We hoped to split all the wood today; the splitter needed to be returned that night.

As we completed the oak tree in The Glen and moved to the cherry tree near the road, I again worried about the gas.

“Hey, we’ll split until we run out and finish another day, if we have to,” Chip said. We resumed our work. Time pleasantly passed as we worked through the oak wood wall, when a sudden small knowing inside me silently slipped out and spread through my body. Deeply spiritual but not connected with formal religion, I had just remembered the story of Jesus feeding a multitude with just a few fish and loaves of bread. Suddenly I knew we would have enough gas to complete our task.

The release of that deep knowing instantly transformed our moments into a sacrosanct place. I noticed more closely Chip’s woodsman garb and slid back in time to when we lived on our Catskill Mountain farm. I saw our much younger selves engaged in this same activity. I recalled Christmases on the farm. I remembered a gift from my ARC co-workers when I resigned to move to Virginia: Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree. I thought of the unending generosity of that giving tree. Standing amidst pieces of split wood under clear sky and sweet winter sunshine, working with my wonderful son, I awoke fully to the day’s incredible abundance: majestic trees surrounding us, breezes whispering by us, mother earth beneath us, blue sky over us, the stream’s gentle trickle near us….

When we split the last chunk, Chip unscrewed the splitter’s gas cap. “We’ve got gas left over,” he reported, hazel eyes twinkling. “Merry Christmas, Mom.”

I hugged Chip tightly, as the full impact of both his and the day’s sacred gifts embraced me.

 

 

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In My Bones

Is there anyone who does not love homemade bread? If so, I have not met that person, have you?

As a young mother of two toddlers in the early 60s, I was gifted with a kind neighbor who taught me to make white bread, the only kind we ate back then. I loved my new skill for two reasons: my bread tasted so much better than Wonder Bread and, for as long as I was an at-home mom, I was proud to be able to make all our bread. Then life led me onto unexpected paths outside my home and I lost that precious time for several years.

In the late 70s, I remarried, a Catskill Mountain dairy farmer, a decision that brought two more toddlers and my unrelenting quest to learn how to make and preserve all our food from scratch. Microwaves had just hit the market but Cuisinart hadn’t invented bread machines yet, so the bread maker was—well—me. I thrived for more than a decade pursuing this lifestyle I loved until the farm economy nose-dived and I needed to return to work off the farm. Once again, I shelved my precious lifestyle mission.

Now, in retirement, I’ve embraced that wonderful quest again. I prefer, as much as possible, to be intimately acquainted with each ingredient I use and know where it came from. Recently I was kneading a batch of whole-grained bread for stuffing the Thanksgiving turkey and reflecting how many ways we can make delicious breads today. First, of course, are the bread-making machines on our kitchen counters. Mine is an unexpectedly acquired stainless rectangle that takes a lot of counter space bur does a decent job if I’m short on time.  Second is a recent quick way to make no-knead yeast dough: put all ingredients into a bowl, stir briskly until mixed, and refrigerate for up to two weeks. Whenever you want bread or pizza dough, you simply scoop out a ball of the dough and bake it.

Then there’s the old-fashioned way I learned five decades ago. As I kneaded the large stuffing dough ball, I decided this would always be my favorite method. I loved the feel of the gingerbread colored dough moving back and forth beneath my palms and of the many bits of cracked wheat that dimpled the ball. The sound of the dough sliding on the lightly floured breadboard beneath my hands also whispered promises of mouth-watering moments later on.

When just enough flour had been kneaded in, the dough lost all stickiness and felt cool, smooth, and pliable. Then I rolled it in my oiled bread bowl and covered it with a towel with these embroidered words, “Thank you for friends between us, food before us, Your presence among us.” As I began another task I smiled as I thought about the silent magical task that dough ball was about to begin to double its size in the dark beneath the towel.

My thoughts slid back to long-ago maple syrup seasons on the farm. On an unknown day in late winter, as the nights stayed cool, but the days began to warm, I’d step outside into a warm moistness in the air and know intuitively that sap had begun to run in the maple trees. The time had arrived to tap the trees and boil the sap into delectable maple syrup.  No one told me; the knowledge had, over the years, simply become stored in my bones.

Later, as my baking bread filled my small house with an aroma that no bread machine could duplicate, I understood that the act of making bread the old-fashioned way was for me as visceral as knowing when the sap had begun to flow. It was a silent, mysterious, and exquisite act of tapping into ancient wisdom.

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I Can’t Breathe

I grew up on the east end of Long Island, near the Hamptons, in a lower middle class family of five. When I started school, more than half my classmates were “colored,” as we called them in the 50s. They were children of Long Island’s large migrant population who worked on the duck and potato farms. The Long Island Railroad ran though our town and those tracks marked the divide between white and black residents’ homes. North of the tracks most homes were small, often unkempt shanties that usually had a shiny new car parked in the driveway. The “n” word was prevalent and we used to joke about those sparkling clean cars parked in weed-filled yards. The general attitude in my home and community was that black people were second-class citizens and I believed it.

Despite our financial difficulties, my mother was adamant that I attend college and I entered an upstate university to become an English teacher. Just a handful of black students attended and I vaguely wondered why. I didn’t yet tie that fact to another one:  by the time we graduated from high school in 1959, less than 25% of us were black.

As I was journeying into “happily ever after,” working at my degree, marrying my high school sweetheart, becoming the mother of two sons, the dream suddenly shattered when he disappeared with another woman. I, not yet degreed, was now a single mother of two small children, with a mortgage and without a car or income. I got a job I could walk to but quickly saw the minimum income would not be enough, so I did the unthinkable: I applied for public assistance for my children. In our town, people on public assistance were in the same boat as blacks: we were second class, society’s leaches, looking for a handout.

I could barely breathe the day I applied for “welfare.” I felt so shamed, helpless, and angry. In time I pulled our life back together, returned to college, finished my degree. Yet I never forgot those eighteen months on public assistance. To this day, I vividly remember standing in lines for government surplus food. Each time my check arrived, my face burned with humiliation.

I never became an English teacher either, for having fully experienced the predicament of my fellow “second-class” peers had changed my life. Suddenly I had a passion to help others move ahead in their difficult journeys, as I had been fortunate to do.

Four years ago I retired from a varied human services career, where I often met myself daily in each new client. The challenge to assist remains, yet now we have a new spotlight: police violence. Ferguson and Manhattan blasted to the forefront our crisis of the unnecessary killing of unarmed black men.

When Eric Garner cried out to the police that he couldn’t breathe, beyond the tragedy of his death, he also poignantly articulated the plight of all his peers. When will we all be able to breathe?

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Rising From Dark Places

  “In a time of destruction, create something.” ~ Maxine Hong Kingston

 

Recently, a perfect storm of events collided in my life and, stunned, I slid into a dark place I’d not visited for more than fifteen years, when I’d been severely assaulted by a client in the residential program I then directed. That time, anxiety, flashbacks, and a long slide into some old, dark waters kept me home from work for two weeks. The wounds that re-opened this time swept me swiftly back into those murky waters that I thought had been cleared, and again I was on the couch for more days than I would have chosen.

I’m in the end stages of completing my memoir and taking steps toward marketing; have a small, productive garden; more than an acre of grounds, my small home, and my three cats to care for; as well as lots of wholesome cooking and preserving to do. Everything came to a grinding pause for three weeks. (Please know I did feed my pets.)  I resented this precious time stolen from me today by other people’s violent actions long ago.

I think of our military men and women daily: the violence so many encounter in horrific experiences in foreign lands, and the trauma so many have endured. I’m grateful our military hospitals are doing a better job with diagnosing and treating PTSD, yet also know there’s still a long journey ahead with the monumental numbers who need treatment in our overcrowded system. My heart goes out to anyone, particularly our veterans, with this diagnosis; I know good treatment makes an immeasurable difference.

As I slogged around the house in my own aftershocks, I looked for something to do to occupy my hands as my soul worked at healing. My eyes landed on a small pile of fabric pieces I’d purchased months ago to make a small quilt. Listlessly I cut out a few strips, then soon stopped, depleted. The next day I cut a few more, and the next day a few more than the day before. In a pace matched only by a sluggish turtle, all the quilt pieces were finally cut, and I sewed a few together. They looked so lovely; I could feel some energy returning. By the end of two weeks, the quilt top was complete and I was thrilled with the outcome.

I still need to sew a muslin border on the edges, and later this fall, I’ll layer the top with batting and backing. This winter, when I’m homebound on my mountain and it feels so cozy to have a quilt on my lap, I’ll quilt it. Meanwhile the quilt top graces the back of my kitchen loveseat in my tiny reading nook. Each time my eyes are drawn to those beautiful autumn colors, they bring deep appreciation for their soft beauty, and a wave of peace through my body. They also remind me that from dark places, it is possible to bring healing and silent splendor.

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A Fascinating Story: The Quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama

When I was raising my children in the small, rural Catskill mountain town of Bovina Center, New York, I discovered the art of quilting had never died there. It was always an active, vibrant, and visceral part of the secluded agricultural town of a few hundred residents. There I learned the lovely art of quilting from farm women and subsequently made many quilts: for my three children, who designed what they liked; friendship quilts; and, with my talented quilting friend, Marilyn Gallant, coordinated a town quilt that, more than three decades later, still hangs on a wall in the Bovina Historical Museum.
Not long ago, at the Crozet Library, I was looking through the video collection and found two about quilting: The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend and another, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. The covers showed a very primitive black and white quilt with one red block. The lines were crooked and there appeared to be no plan or pattern. Puzzled and intrigued, I brought both videos home and over the next two evenings, watched a rich and fascinating quilting tradition of five generations of Arkansas women unfold before me.
These quilters also lived in a tiny rural town of 700 where quilting never faded as an art, and I felt an immediate kinship with them. Most were in my age group, seventh decade, and I felt particularly drawn to their history. For the quilters of Gee’s Bend were not the average southern women quilters; they were of African-American descent and traced their heritage directly back to slavery.
The town of Gee’s Bend came into the hands of Joseph Gee after the Creek Indians were “dispatched” by war in 1814. The narrow fifteen mile “quirky piece of geography” was comprised of thousands of secluded acres that were surrounded on three sides by the bridgeless Alabama River and its swamps. Gee established a cotton plantation and, following his death ten years later, the plantation passed through a succession of Gees, until eventually landing into the hands of Mark Pettway, a Gee relative to whom the plantation was indebted. With the property came with 101 slaves.
It was common for slaves to have their master’s surname and many of the quilters interviewed were named Pettway. “The Civil War brought ‘freedom,’ but little other change to the black residents of Gee’s Bend. They became tenant farmers, rather than chattel, and continued to farm the land.” The videos traced a long, difficult history that included the abject poverty of the Great Depression, a new white supremacist owner, who wanted to repopulate the town with white farmers, and so much more, until the quilters were discovered and came to prominence as national artists.
If you love quilting and have not heard of the Gee’s Bend quilters, I believe you will find this exceptional story a fascinating, beloved addition to your stash of quilting history.

NOTE: Quotes taken from “Gee’s Bend, The Architecture of the Quilt,” edited by Paul Arnett, Joanne Cubbs, Eugene W. Metcalf, Jr.

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May 11 – Mother’s Day 1994

May 11 – Mother's Day 1994.

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