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Chandra's Blog


Entries in quilts (3)


Writing the Crazy Quilt

Recently I got to sit down and chat craft with my high school creative writing teacher. We have been sharing work in the past year, and my children are enthralled by her simple, heartfelt and other-worldly stories of the Moon Darlings. She conveys meaning with a sparse prose, ethereal imagery and language that hints of another place while deeply tethering the reader to the characters.

She listened to me explain what I have been working on this summer, a revisiting of a dual narrator novel that explores the relationship between two women on either side of a man. I rambled on with a plot summary, and explained it as a study on natural beauty and its merit, and the moral compass, and undoing the damage of the past and ... I paused for a breath.

Janna nodded. She then said diplomatically, "I think you would do a very good job writing for a television series. Something complex and intricate, that spins out for many seasons. I'm not sure a novel is the right medium for this kind of writing."

Basically, she said again what an agent who was considering CHOSEN told me years ago in a thick, gravelly Brooklyn accent, "You don't got to be so tricky, doll!"  

Janna went on to say that perhaps, this is the outcome of me knowing that I am talented--see all these balls I can keep in the air!--and intrinsically insecure about the actual merit of what I have to say. A 'don't mind the man behind the curtain, now look over here! she's about to get on another plane/in bed with another man/wreck her life in a new way!' Maybe I'm afraid my story doesn't stand on its own, in the same kind of beautifully simple voice that carries Janna's stories, so I heap on layers, and plot twists and funny side scenes, quirky characters, sex scenes and dredge up some backstory. 

I was reminded of my quilting. I don't actually know how to quilt, and I'm not particularly interested in learning. I don't want to be hemmed in by the rules of quilting, don't want to fuss with ironing interfacing to fabrics that don't have the same amount of give or pin before I sew every little bit. I want freedom to use anything I like, slash up and incorporate a fabulous thrift store find, whether or not it will hold up to a washing machine. Because of this, I rely on the medium of the crazy quilt, where my shortcomings and lack of quilting skill can be covered up with another overlap, another layer, some top stitching or embroidery. In the end, I hope that the person looking at the quilt will see the beauty in the midst of the chaos, because I do. 

(You can read about my daughter's Incentive Quilt, here.)
Piper's crazy quilt

Janna's writing advice: step back from this rolicking, wild, plot-heavy story. Tone down the neurotic characters I have woven. Write a scene from this story in simple prose, and see if the heart is there. There is a reason I am stalled out--see if this is why. I'm excited to try. She may be on to something that explains why I keep circling this story, never feeling like I understand the essence of it.

And on the other hand, I'm not sure that my methodology is totally problematic. Instead, perhaps it is simply my style? There are things I am good at in both mediums. It's not that I'm hasty or sloppy or can't write/sew something beautiful. I hand-embroidered thirteen painted ponies for Piper's quilt, with carefully blanket-stitched edges and flowing, colorful manes and tails, and they're lovely. I can craft dialog that rings true while conveying character and moving plot along all at once. I can seamlessly incorporate elements of pop culture that lend verisimilitude to my work.

I don't only crazy quilt because I'm too lazy to iron before I sew--I do it because I am attracted to this style more than perfectly symmetrical calico stars. I feel inspired by the beauty in layering and odd angles and textures and riotous colors. I am drawn to Murano glass, and cherish J's aunt's miniature layered collages. One of my favorite descriptions of our home was 'Pee Wee's Playhouse Grows Up' because of the bright colors and ecclectic mix of styles that somehow ... work.

Maybe this is true of my writing too. I cringe every time I feel myself edited towards chicklit, pat or formulaic writing. I demand that my characters be messily three-dimensional, with ugly, wobbly, secret underbellies and defining backstories and childhood friends and ex-boyfriends and snarky coworkers and things they do when they think nobody is looking. Maybe I write this way because I am attracted to the beautiful chaos of real life? 

I'll let you know how it goes this week.


Favorites on Friday-Letting Go

Everyone has a favorite holiday--mine is Christmas. I wrote an ode to the ritual of Christmas last year, on the importance of making the magic for my own family as my parents made it for us. This year, I want to honor the opportunity that this time brings for letting go. Christmas in America has come to mean a time of excess--excessive splurging and gorging and maxxing out and doing it all. I recently overheard my uncle ask my mom how she was doing with holiday prep and she said, "Frantic!" and he said that he believed that was an honorable celebration of Christmas--can you imagine how frantic poor Mary felt having to travel so close to her due date, to be taxed, and then go into labor and have to give birth in a barn? 

But I don't want to be frantic, and I don't want to scramble to do all the things that will make the magic so that I risk losing some of what I am really craving: peace, and time with people I love. 

It's easy to get comparative at Christmas. My kids complain that we don't decorate our yard with inflatable snow globes or hang icicle lights from our eaves. I use the excuse that we live far off the street to get out of the snow globe horror, and that our eaves are two precarious stories up--do they not remember how many times Daddy dropped the F-bomb as we maneuevered the ancient, creaky extension ladder up to the roof so he could teeter up there and spray/silicone the hole where the wasps were coming in last month?!

It is also easy to compare this Christmas to ones that came before--we're not going to the Caribbean (because of hockey and an adolescent Sampson who cannot be left for two weeks) and I worry, when the rest of the family leaves, will they be sad? And what about presents? Did we buy enough WOW gifts? Enough surprises and treasures and presents? Are there too many useful items like clothes and toothbrushes and new boxer shorts?

I ordered my Christmas cards early, but with this photo as my frontrunner, you might wonder why most of them are still sitting in the box, half-addressed? It's far from perfect, but it captures the essence of this year pretty well:


CHRISTMAS CARD 2011And though I managed to get three chocolates into each of the advent stockings that hang in the garland up the stairs, in early December I was crushing to get my second novel off to my agent and didn't put in slips of paper with carefully thought-out, festive directives of past years:

do a good deed for someone

set up the LGB train

go for a night drive and look at Christmas lights

watch the Grinch

bake Christmas cookies for the classrooms

go to the Tableaux

learn a Christmas song on the piano

help Mom stamp the Christmas cards

read Jan Brett's "Christmas Trolls"

go on a date with Mom/Dad to buy presents for siblings

While we are managing to do most of these things, I worry that it is not with anticipation and mindfulness, with the ritual I had hoped. The Tableaux were a disaster--Max had binged on three (five?) donuts at our three morning hockey games and was a full-on grouchy Scrooge, despite the fact that his beloved Harper was playing the part of the baby Lord. Piper upon spying her best friend in the processional, had a screeching tantrum about not being able to sit with Ellery--the accoustics in the Cathedral are really something.

We did manage to bake the cookies for their classroom Christmas parties, but they look more Cake Wreck than blog-worthy and I kept reminding myself that it is the PROCESS, not the PRODUCT.


One Piper piping...

the product 

I do these instead of individual classroom gifts because I maintain that there is nothing I want to buy that I can afford sixty of as classmate gifts, and there is nothing I want to receive that someone else bought sixty of, (see my post on plasti-Christmas-crap)

I worry my kids are a little let-down by this--that when everyone else is handing out Santa erasers and foam picture frames from Oriental Trading Company, they have a tray of cookies to share, but they did report that our less-than-beautiful cookies were a huge hit and brought home nothing but crumbs, much to J's chagrin. 



I am committed to letting go this year. Everything will not be perfect. The majority of the hundreds of items the kids have initialed in the toy catalogs will go unpurchased.

(We have often said it would be easier and save ink if they just initial the handful of items they don't want.)

But there are presents under the tree, puzzles and books and new hockey equipment and Legos and Beyblades and snowpants and handsewn Ugli dolls and dollhouse accessories and clothes and (shh! an iPad2) and I hope that by the time Christmas comes, I will have made peace with all the things I didn't do or buy or finish... 

Yesterday, my sister and Harper and Quinn were here to bake cookies, address cards and for me to work on sewing Harper's quilt. Instead, I lay down on the couch with the baby on my chest so my sister could stuff her cards. Instead of baking cookies, Piper and Quinn played with the wooden nativity and rescued the baby Lord from Sampson's jaws, peppered with multiple live re-enactments of the Christmas story.  It is easy to let go when you see that there is magic happening, even if it is not the one you scripted.

Piper and Quinn play Mary and Baby



The Incentive Quilt

Around their second birthday, I have taken each of my children on an outing to the fabric store where I let them select fabrics that I will sew into their incentive quilt. I am usually waddling through the store, seven months pregnant with the next, and the incentive is clear: get out of our bed and into your own with this lovely new quilt before the baby arrives.


The boys’ quilts are queen-sized, patchwork style, seven inch squares with bugs, trucks, spiders, flame and lava fabrics, lots of fleeces and fuzzies. I leave the bottoms open, so that I can slide a duvet in for winter months, but still enjoy them in summer, and I do absolutely no hand-quilting. These quilts would be a lot easier if I actually knew how to sew, but so much of my time is spent ripping out seams, rethreading my $99 plastic machine, fiddling with tensions. I still have to break out the manual nearly every time I wind the bobbin or replace a broken needle.


It is all worth it, though, because my boys love their quilts, drag them out to the living room to snuggle by the fire, make tents with them on the trampoline, and when my oldest spent a week in the hospital with pneumonia, he insisted on being cocooned in his. I have asked if they want new ones, if they’re bothered at 5 and 8 years old by having Scoop, Muck and Dizzy from their toddler years on their beds, but they refuse.


There was a boy I wanted to sleep with in college because I heard his mother had made him a postage stamp quilt out of all his favorite childhood clothes that graced his dorm room twin. Not only was this guy smoking hot, but I thought there must be something special, a confidence to someone who would proudly sleep under a homemade quilt with puppies and bunnies, Izod alligators and duck heads from his boyhood clothes. And I’ll confess, the creative part of me just wanted to get a good look at this quilt, see how it was put together, but I never did.


Two years ago, it was time to sew my daughter’s quilt, but it has been different. There is no coming baby, no incentive to stop sleeping in her king-sized daybed intertwined with her warm, olive-skinned limbs. I have dawdled over Piper’s quilt, partially because of the difficulty of tackling a crazy quilt, partially because her interests keep changing--“shoes, ponies, flowers!”-- and partially because life keeps interrupting us, demanding to be included in her quilt. The color scheme has expanded from red, peach and petal pink to red, peach, all shades of pink, ivory, orange, fuschia, tangerine and even the occasional bright white and pale green. Then my mother-in-law died after a long battle with breast cancer, and her loving promise to haunt us came in the form of dragonflies—we saw them everywhere, and in going through her things, I found a vest beaded with dragonflies. It had to be included in Piper’s quilt.


Cleaning out closets for my mother, I found a turn-of-the-century rag quilt that one of my father’s great aunts had made. It had moth-holes and tears, but there were sections of it that were intact, red, pink and cream, and had to be included. I also used clothes of Piper’s she had outgrown or stained: the orange and fushcia striped leggings from her 6 month old costume as a baby chicken? Yes. Her goldfish and cherry onesies? Of course. When my sister graduated from Wakeforest, she sent me the orange and hot pink paisley sheets I had given her four years earlier as her going-off-to-college present. Could I use them in Piper’s quilt? Check--putting the crazy in crazy quilt.


Flipping through the Garnet Hill catalog when Piper was at the height of her two-year-old obsession with ponies, I found sheets that had whimsical patchwork horses. I ordered a set, and then cut up the pillowcase, taking ten ponies and hand-embroidering each one on squares placed randomly in her quilt. This was the slowest part of the process—for more than a year, I went everywhere—my boys’ hockey games, toddler playtime, meetings, haircuts, car, train and plane rides, with a pony in my purse. Whenever I got demoralized, Piper would cheer me on. Last month, she told me, “You know what I will love best about my quilt? Whenever I am jumping on my bed, I can look down, and it will be like, wow I’m riding on ponies!”


She kept me company in our loft while I sewed and sewed—taking loops of fabric from my bins and blanketing her ride-on pony or wrapping her dolls, chattering away, weighing in on fabric combinations and lay outs with a keen design eye. When I was working late, bleary-eyed and accidentally sewed my finger in the machine, Piper was a level-headed three-year-old doctor, carefully bandaging and kissing it—after that, she warned me at least daily about not sewing my fingers.


Throughout all this, I finished the edits for my first novel and wrote my second. Piper’s quilt was the creative outlet when writing stumped me, the perfect escape. Manipulating fabrics, sewing crazy angles, waving off any puckering or gapping to ‘part of the vintage look’ was often easier than writing to a deadline. For two years, I dutifully recopied “finish Piper’s quilt” from To-Do list to To-Do list, along with “clean basement” and “organize junk drawers”. You can imagine which got finished first. 


This spring, just after Piper’s third birthday, I knew I was getting close, but unsure about how to finish the back. With the boys’, I simply bought plain fleece blankets and sewed the two together. But I sensed Piper’s needed something different. Strolling through Marshalls one day, I found the perfect back—a king-sized, scallop-edged, pale pink and already machine-quilted in looping color-on-color paisley pattern bedspread, on sale. It was the mature and elegant flipside, the foil to the craziness I was furiously quilting. It would mean I would have to make her quilt bigger, hand sew at least two more ponies. But never mind that. I cut the scallops off, and incorporated tiny squares into the front, for congruity—there is method to my madness.


Finally, last week, I laid the two out on top of each other and tugged and pinned, then rolled the heft up and put the two sides together, using Piper and a chair to help me quide the king-sized heft through my-little-engine-that could, the bargain basement sewing machine. And then it was done. Well, mostly done. I still want to sew on more bows, flowers and embellishments, still have a throw pillow to make out of one leftover pony, and I could always do more hand-quilting…

Piper is finally sleeping under ponies in her king-size daybed. And I’m right there beside her, and usually one or two of the boys, and at least one cat, and sometimes Daddy, and the dog snoring away on the floor. One of these days we’ll all go to sleep in our own beds and stay there, and eventually the basement will be cleaned, and the junk drawers organized too, but for now this is just fine.