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December 21st, 2012


Old Quilts

While wandering through an antique shop some years back, I found a small stack of great old patches for a quilt that someone had painstakingly sewn, but never put together. I bought these, then some new fabric for borders and a backing, and stitched away. As I worked, I noticed that the old fabric pulled. As I kept on, full-fledged rips appeared.

I mentioned this to a friend who’s a seamstress and had given me some advice. Now she said, “Oh, yeah, that would happen. The old and new cloth won’t really go together, and the fresh stitching will stress the old. But anyway, it’s about the process.”

Um, no, I thought. I wanted a quilt. Something to put on a bed. But sometimes the process is what we get. Sore hands, soft curses over the sewing machine, and a quilt that’s sort of pretty though it’s left folded and untouched. Or stories we thought might astonish, but that stay mostly in our rooms.


As a writing instructor, my job is to encourage people to write more and vividly and deep. Maybe something of theirs will be found between covers down the line. None of us know. I’m also friends with writers who watch each other’s backs. Sometimes there are celebrations. Often there are disappointments. Always, I’m grateful for our conversations, and the ways we help each other to look more carefully at what’s under our hands or in rich and complicated pasts.

These include childhoods in which we played a lot of games that had finishing lines, or winners and losers. We couldn’t help taking these in as metaphors for life. But looking back, it’s the playing, friends, and family I remember, not when I crossed the lines or who won what.  And when I look at my life as a writer, the people are what matter, too. Most of us keep setting goals of books to finish and publish if we can. But getting there means trying to see more steadily and widely, which is a good in itself, one that usually happens on paths that don’t lead in a straight line to glory. We’re not the grownups we thought grownups were back when we were children. We’re more confused. We keep making mistakes. We learn that some things we thought were possible aren’t, and that some things we believed were impossible are possible after all.

Maybe we don’t belt out songs in the grocery store, as I heard a child tucked in a shopping cart do yesterday. I’m not going to wear red ornament-sized earrings like a woman in another aisle, bells jingling under her gray curls. The most I could manage was to take a breath when another shopper nearly tripped me in a dash to the dairy case. Hey, we all want butter. But if we’re lucky, the sense of hope and mystery we had when we were little doesn’t entirely fade away.

Writers work by ourselves, but we draw from each other’s courage. No matter whether we write science fiction, edgy novels, nostalgic essays, picture books, anything at all, when we’re facing the page we’re at least sometimes facing ourselves, and that’s never easy. Some of us are hugely ambitious, and some of us are happy for a small audience. All of us strive to balance a drive to keep going with the ability to cherish where we are.

Stitching those old quilt squares, I was trying to finish something beautiful that someone else had started, then put away, for reasons I’ll never know. I’m sorry that my work didn’t turn out as I’d hoped, giving an unknown woman a space her work deserved. I’m not looking for neglected projects under any more tables at antique shops, but I won’t stop looking for unfinished stories.  Like people who’ve been sewing through the centuries, almost always without their names attached to their work, we can’t know what part of what we leave is going to matter. Some of us will keep pricking our fingers, making stitches whether or not they hold. Some of us will keep blowing on candles, watching flames waver.