In the midst of all that, I recently got it into my head that now—of all seasons in life—was the perfect time to whip up a handmade quilt for a friend’s baby shower...
In other words: I started a quilt recently.
And, along with the pleasure of completing a new project, I’ve been plagued by the harmlessly lurking sort of depression that always comes my way when I do this type of thing--the melancholy of unfulfilled perfectionism.
Quilting is both heaven and hell for the perfectionist because there are so many straight lines involved. We perfectionists cling to straight lines—they keep us sane, they give us details to micromanage and categories to separate and flow charts to chart progress and grids… Lots of grids!! When you think about it, a quilt is basically just a very crafty grid system: straight seams. Crisp corners. 90-degree angles. Edges that are flesh with one another.
That’s what a quilt—and all of life—is supposed to be like.
I always start a quilting project with grandiose ideals of how perfect all my squares and seams will be. I can usually get close enough that my projects look decent to the naked eye—as long as that naked eye is across the room from the finished product. (Enter melancholy.) Halfway into this most recent quilting project, the subtle mistakes were too much to handle—why not throw the whole thing away and start over?
It’s a temptation that quietly strangles my creativity in many areas of life, in particular my writing. In fact, the quilting project started—in part—because I felt I needed a manageable project to distract me from the harrows of dissertating. Somehow, a quilt seemed just the thing—instead, it’s put me face-to-face with the same demon that sits on my shoulder every time I sit down to dissertate. The demon that can’t handle incongruity of any kind, that rips its hair out when thoughts and sentences don’t follow each other in a straight line right off the bat. The demon that would have me write only ideas that are safe, that fit together with perfect 90-degree angles—ideas whose seams don’t have to be ripped out and re-sewn three times before they look presentable. The demon that all too often wrestles my writing into a prison of safety and over-simplicity.
It took me a while to finish the quilt, because every time I made a mistake, I’d leave it in my sewing corner for weeks on end, too disheartened to deal with it. Finally, days before my friend’s baby shower, I girded my loins against the patchwork demon. Lots of sewing ensued. Also, lots of mistakes, only some of which I caught in time to re-do. The last stitch went into the quilt around 11AM Saturday morning—leaving an hour to wash, dry and wrap the quilt in time for my friend’s baby shower. As usual, the quilt I made this time around is full of squares and seams that only mostly lined up with one another. But a very strange thing happened when I showed the quilt to my husband: he loved it. Another funny thing happened when my friend saw it: she loved it. In the end, no one noticed the imperfections—or maybe they did, and thought it was part of the charm. And to think: patchwork demon had me this close to throwing the whole thing away and buying something else for my friend.
Which makes me wonder: maybe there is something existentially meaningful I need to learn about life from quilting.
If so, I bet it has something to do with the symbolic act of bringing fragmented things into a sort of wholeness. They don’t call it patchwork for nothing—quilts used to be sewn of old rags and patches that were no longer suitable for use. Like most modern quilters, I use new fabric, but there is nonetheless something to be said about cutting whole cloths down into pieces, and bringing those pieces together into some semblance of unity—uneven seams and all.
It’s an exercise in willful fragmentation, in finding order in chaos, synthesis in disparateness. I think this is attractive, because all of us know the pain of fragmentation. All of us can lament, as Rilke did in a poem: “I’ve been broken into pieces, torn by conflict. […] In alleyways I sweep myself up
out of garbage and broken glass.” Just as we can all empathize with his longing to be whole:
Now I have been rebuilt,
out of all the shards of my shame.
I yearn to belong to something, to be contained
in an all-embracing mind that sees me
as a single thing.
In quilting, I walk the depths that lie between disintegration and reintegration. I relearn the reality of division and disparateness, and I see how fragile unity can be sometimes, with its tentative, jagged seams. And I learn to trust the jaggedness, to see the big picture of wholeness beyond the seams.
This time around, I was thinking a lot about writing as I made the quilt. In moving towards the conclusion of my dissertation, I’ve been having to deal with a lot of loose ends—loose ideas and uneven seams of writing that I’ve swept under the carpet until now. Writing is messy work—and concluding a piece of writing is the messiest part of all. The perfectionist demon in me would rather not deal with it. It would just as soon snip off all the ill-formed, half-hatched thoughts—cut the dissertation down to a perfectly square body of writing in which everything lines up and no conclusions venture outside the lines. But as disjointed as they are, I’m realizing that many of these incongruous, loose-ended ideas are some of my best. They just need to be re-cut again, and realigned with other patches of the dissertation quilt. And sometimes, the seams will never be a perfect grid—the ideas will never follow a perfect flow. But that’s okay: once in a while, you will have to stray outside the lines to say something meaningful.
There is a certain kind of beauty in things that are perfectly symmetrical, precise, straight. There is a wholly different kind of beauty to be found in a quilt of imperfections.