Thursday, October 13, 2011

the importance of creativity and why I quilt

Although I've been puttering around my sewing room a little bit during the evenings this week (I'm back to work during the days), I don't really have anything new to share.  There are a lot of projects to finish up or cut fabric for or get to the next stage on.  We don't have kids this weekend - or even any plans as of yet - and hopefully I will get caught up on a few things.  But this post is inspired more from thinking than doing.

Over the past several months I've been reading, "The Gifts of Imperfection," by BrenĂ© Brown.  Although I've read the entire book, I keep going back to re-read and absorb parts of it.  In the book, she writes that the gifts of imperfection are courage, compassion and connection, and then goes on to challenge "the things that get in the way."  Her sixth guidepost is entitled, "Cultivating Creativity:  Letting Go of Comparison."

Although it's nearly an impossible work to paraphrase, I identify with so much of what she writes because my mother instilled in me a psyche that says that what others think is more important than who I really am or what I really feel, and the only way to be safe from criticism is to be perfect ... to fall short of that is shameful.  It takes A LOT of work to undo this mentality, to believe that I am good enough the way I am, and worthy of love and praise, and to adopt realistic expectations for myself.  As a result, I tend to firmly grasp any resource I can find that helps me reroute some of those mental pathways I've had since childhood.

In the chapter on creativity, Dr. Brown encourages us to express ourselves by being creative and unique; that the cookie-cutter mentality is what leads to comparison and negative self-talk about not being "enough".  Mind you, the entire book is very tightly woven and nearly all of it refers to other parts, circling back to prove various statements.  It is a quest to learn how people live "wholeHEARTedly" and how traits/practices/characteristics like spirituality, gratitude and authenticity contribute to that, and how we can help those things thrive.  With creativity comes a power of self-expression, and it is the only unique contribution we can ever really make in this world ... with creativity, she says, we cultivate meaning.  It helps us stay mindful to the beauty of the world and what we bring to it.

The funny thing is that I am one of those she calls out as telling myself and others that I'm not really an artist, or not really creative.  When I quilt, I follow directions.  I take fabric that truly creative people have designed, and I cut it up and sew it back together in patterns that other truly creative people have designed.  I don't give myself any credit for being part of the creative process.  What's more is that I tend to take that comparison to others into my creative life.   My work isn't as good as others', my points aren't as perfect, my stitches aren't as even.  I guess it doesn't help that as quilters, we often enter our work into shows to be judged and critiqued by those we consider professionals; that I have a dollar value put on my work by an appraiser.  I struggle against making these constant comparisons, because even if I were told that my quilts were horrible and ugly and worthless, I'd probably keep making them anyway.

See, Dr. Brown goes on to write about cultivating "calm and stillness," especially as an antidote to anxiety, which I think I experience more than the average person (and her book well identifies exactly how and why I end up with so much anxiety).  Cultivating calm and stillness is exactly what I do when I sew.  I once told my Honey when he was with me in my sewing room that cutting fabric into uniform, precise shapes and then sewing it back together - again, uniformly and precisely - is an extraordinarily soothing antidote in the chaos of today's world.  I have control.  I have power.  I can take these ingredients and turn them into whatever I want them to look like.  At no other time as when I'm working on a quilt can my mind so well focus on things.  Dr. Brown writes firsthand about my own experiences in trying meditation - how I spend the entire time trying to avoid working on a mental to do list or waiting for the allotted time to be over.  But she writes that "stillness is not about focusing on nothingness; it's about creating a clearing.  It's opening up an emotionally clutter-free space and allowing ourselves to feel and think and dream and question."  And for me, the balance of thought and planning required and free time allowed for my mind to roam while I sew is the perfect breeding ground to create that clearing for fully free thought. 

I had recognized this long ago.  I know that when I get most anxious and rundown it's because I've been lacking time in my sewing room.  I know that I require that sense of balance and creativity for happiness.  And it's more than just the creating that's in process; it's the form of meditation that transpires while I'm doing it.  It's like the dust that gets stirred up by being an active part of the world has time to settle.  It's where my emotions pour out into my work, and the sadness I feel at the loss or illness of a loved one is turned into a quilt; the love I feel for someone else is turned into another quilt; the joy I feel at a friend welcoming a new baby into the world is turned into another quilt; a fond memory is memorialized in another quilt.  To me, my quilts don't represent anything particularly creative or artistic.  They represent my feelings put into fabric.  And when I present that quilt, it feels far less vulnerable and awkward than trying to put into words how I feel (although, for the record, I do try).

When I speak about why I quilt, I often tell the story about my experience after 9/11.  The world was in shock, and when that shock wore off, people wanted to do something, but no one knew really what.  Blood banks were turning donors away, overwhelmed.  I was living in the little canal town of Delaware City, Delaware, and our mayor (a woman I quilted with at the town library every Wednesday night) decided that the town was going to go ahead and have our Canalfest which was scheduled for that Saturday, September 15.  It was kind of an arts festival, with vendors set up in the city park, and the informal local quilter's group set up in the gazebo ... not selling anything, but just plying our craft for people to watch.  Well, when the tragic events of 9/11 happened, I knew that there would be a call on the internet for comfort quilts, and so during the evenings of that week, I whipped up a red, white and blue log cabin quilt top from scraps I had in my sewing room.  I put the sandwiched quilt on my floor frame and, on Saturday, had my then-husband take it down and set it up in the gazebo with a sign inviting everyone to take a few stitches in a quilt that would go to comfort a survivor of the attacks or a victim's family.  I will never forget how the line of people to work on that quilt stretched across the green of the park.  There were children, old men, teenage girls waiting to learn how to wear a thimble, take up a needle and sew a running stitch.  I had everyone who participated sign their names on a piece of paper, and by the time it was finished by the quilters later, we had over a hundred people work on that quilt.  We were overwhelmed that day, but I think what stuck with me most was seeing the NEED that people had to find a way to help ... to contribute, to do something to send their love and prayers and healing thoughts to strangers somewhere who needed it.  I felt such pity for them, since I have been using my quilting as a way to do that for decades now. 

People who don't sew look at my quilts and tell me that I have a gift.  I don't see it that way - I think I have a learned skill that anyone else can have.  But the process of creating the quilt - the evolution of emotional energy from planning to presentation - and recognizing that I can accomplish that amazing spiritual journey with fabric, needle and thread, to me, is the real gift.

1 comment:

  1. I love your post....I am going to recommend the book to my daughter. She is far to critical of herself and needs to stop the comparison game.