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For some it is music, for others getting out in nature, still others enjoy pets or a hobby. Each of us has our own way of restoring peace. My places of refuge are my quilting and writing, and I used both liberally this year, trying to achieve equilibrium. This diary describes the quest I’ve been on. It’s kind of long, so I thank you in advance for taking the time to read.

This year was hard for me. Near the beginning of the year an important friendship came apart abruptly. As I tried to make sense of it, I wrote a lot, some for me and some to share. For me, some of the first words I wrote were these

"it was broken, shattered, pieces all pieces sharp and bright. And then pieces sinking into the water deep and swallowing it down and dark, pulling the pieces darkly into the deepest, coldest, loneliest places."

At the time I was working on my son’s graduation quilt and had just finished assembling the top, still to be quilted. Technically and mentally it was a challenge, with very little satisfaction between design and completion. (I wrote about some of those challenges here.)

Though quilting usually is a positive experience for me, this one was not for other reasons, as well. Besides the happy symbolism of Son’s adulthood and his impending entrance into the Air Force, the quilt became imbued with sorrow, the grief and guilt I chewed through as I tried to resolve what happened with my friend.

My next project, the red and white “Hunger Quilt,” didn’t improve my joy in quilting. In many ways it was more difficult. My local guild had issued a challenge to create a quilt in two fabrics, one red and one white. This was a challenge in every sense of the word. With more piecing than any project I’d done so far, with the limitations of two fabrics, with the desire to quilt it heavily with feathers, it tested my abilities. While I am happy with how it turned out, I didn’t enjoy the process.

One of the challenges with these projects was the sameness. For the graduation quilt, there were two block styles. Forty “A” blocks and 41 “B” blocks, but each A was the same and each B was the same. For the hunger quilt, all 20 blocks were the same, and worse yet, only two fabrics, and only two patch styles.

There was not enough to occupy my mind.

As I stitched and assembled on these two projects, the spaces of my mind not occupied with my task filled with the broken friendship. Quiet time was not quiet but noisy, shrieking with questions, trying to solve the puzzle of just what happened. I turned again and again, running through all I knew, all my assumptions, all my guesses. There was no resolution, but the attempt for it pulled me into a pit of anxiety that shortened my breath, tightened my chest, and increased my heart rate.

And that brings me to the siblings’ quilts. With the two big projects finished by the end of May, I knew I needed to switch gears, to do smaller projects with more variety. I needed to add more joy and more creativity to my quilting life, since I do think of it as a refuge, as well as a hobby. It needed it to bring me peace again, rather than making me feel worse.

In that spirit, I decided to make lap quilts, one for each of Jim’s eight siblings. Each would be different, each using only fabric from my stash, to the extent possible. Using stash requires improvisation, a different kind of creativity than shopping anew for each project.

I began in mid-June after returning from a trip that included meeting several kossacks in person, most especially our gracious host, commonmass. The trip was healing in some regards, but with no resolution, I still stewed and churned.

And so I started on the first ones, beginning with my attention span short, only able to work a few minutes at a time.  

1.  This quilt is for Jim’s oldest brother. He is 78 now and I thought he and his wife might enjoy the feed sack fabrics, actual and reproduction. The challenge on this was in design. The red triangles were from another project someone else had abandoned, and they were already cut as triangles. I wanted to make the most of them, cutting them as little as possible. Also the small squares are feed sack fabrics that I cut from barely larger patches, from yet a different person’s abandoned project. Incorporating those shapes created a new test, which I met.

2.  The oldest sister, a gardener, gets a flowered quilt. Most of this cloth was purchased in a guild auction, and I was happy to make it all work together.

3.  I like the strong contrasts in this quilt for the next brother. It suits his personality, sweet and funny in some ways, and … well … best to leave it at that. Jim was my color consultant for the posts between the sashings. He picked red, and it surprised me he was right. He almost always is.

4.  This was actually my first project in this series. With an inspiration fabric that included musical notes, I wanted to make a quilt for Jim’s sister, a singer and musician. I started with the center star and made decisions for each border as I got to it, letting the quilt lead me. One of the borders uses the "piano keys" piecing, appropriate as her husband is a sacred musician, playing organ for his Catholic church.

As I worked through the quilts, choosing fabrics and enjoying the design process, I could feel my attention span increasing and peace returning. The turmoil from earlier in the year still played in my mind, but did not dominate the way it had. The therapy was beginning to take hold.

My work was interrupted in August with a family reunion in Florida with these same in-laws. Though I have no regrets we went, I didn’t come back feeling closer to them. Shortly after returning, a rift in the family occurred due to political differences. I should say, “another” rift occurred. Jim and I have already felt less close to some of them over the last couple of years because of these issues.

And again, relationship problems began to dominate the quilting process. How would the quilts be received? Would cynical motives be attached to the gift? Would they even care? Could they appreciate how much thought, time, effort, and even money I’ve put into them?

These questions come up for me again and again, feeding back into the anxiety cycle I had earlier this year, the anxiety I’ve worked so hard to heal. And I keep pushing them back, pushing them down, reminding myself that the quilts are for ME, not for them. That my effort, originally, was primarily for my healing, my peace. And if family peace improves, that’s a wonderful thing, but that wasn’t the original motivation. One thing I've had reinforced this year is I can't take responsibility for anyone else's emotional well-being. Dang, hard enough to keep track of my own some days!

This partial quote attributed to Mother Teresa expresses some of how I feel:

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.

Given that, I had to keep going.

5.  A "scrap" quilt, this one is made of many different pieces of fabric. This sister, who sews and quilts too, can appreciate the variety of patterns and color I used. When it was time to choose the alternate blocks, I tried one after another. Again I had to call in Jim to do color consultation. When we saw the double pink, we knew it was right. Double pinks were used 100 years ago just like this, as a neutral against all other colors. The pink may look orangish -- we had a hard time getting the photo color right.

6.  There is a lot of symbolism in this one. The sister receiving this lost a grandson to leukemia six years ago, and in the family, cardinals are associated with him. Besides using fabric with cardinals on it, the blocks with red are called a shoofly, and I thought they looked sort of like birds in flight.

7.  For a younger brother, the traditional fall colors with a non-traditional star pattern. Again with this one I started by making one block. After one, I decided to do three more like it, and edge them with sashing. Then I was stuck. First, I had no more fabric in my stash that would work with it. Second, I wanted to make a more creative border than just straight strips of one fabric. It seemed to call for a pieced border. Several of you gave your opinions for color and design. After shopping with Jim for more cloth, I came up with this. (The colors in the photo don't show the real colors well.)

8.  And finally for the youngest, I made a quilt using fabric featuring Chinese children playing with their kites, a piece I bought when we visited him in June. The block style and border fabric mimic lanterns, lending consistency to the piece. The colors will work well in his beautiful home. It's one of my favorites.

The year has been a journey through dark and uncomfortable places, and it isn't over yet. When I wrote most of this a couple of weeks ago, I felt pretty good. October was easy, by far my "lightest" month of the year. In early November things started to fall apart again, gradually at first. But like the crumbling of a cliff face, after the first weakening, the whole structure eroded and fell. The anxiety is back along with some pretty low times. I feel weak, diminished, and with low self-esteem. None of this is familiar to me; none of this has happened before this year. It's tempting to believe that answers from my former friend on what happened, why, and why we couldn't reconcile, would help. Right now I don't know if that's true.

Either way, there have been a lot of lessons this year. I've learned a lot about myself and my husband, especially his unending and unconditional love, for which I'm very grateful. I've learned about how I interact with other people, for good and for bad. I know more about forgiveness and for whom it is important. I still believe in love and believe in giving it openly to those I care for, whether they choose to accept it or not. As Mother Teresa might have added, Love anyway. And when you trust someone, they might let you down. Trust anyway.

I still have bad moments, even bad days strung together, but quilt therapy has helped. It has allowed me to refocus over time and increase my attention span again. It lets me express my creativity through shape and color, design and skill. And after all this, I'm excited about quilting again.

Originally posted to Jim & Melanie in IA on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 05:45 AM PST.

Also republished by DK Quilt Guild, J Town, Pink Clubhouse, and Personal Storytellers.

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