Sunday, January 27, 2013

Necessary Tension

For the first time in days the landscape is still and silent. The wind chimes outside my bedroom, like icicles, hang hard and motionless. The empty fields, rolled out like bolts of unpressed linen, the edges fringed with caramel-colored broom sedge, are empty. No flocks of blackbirds to be flushed by the sound of a door being opened, a car being started. No dead leaves rattling. Just stillness. Just silence.
 I pause. I wait. I linger for just a moment in the moment.
 This place, this land animates me.
Four days ago I stood on the beach. It was neither still nor silent. The water rolled onto the sand in low frothy waves, slapping at it like a kitten at a ball – teasing, playful. A brisk wind was swirling from the north end of the island, picking up the sand and tossing it in tiny eddies around my ankles. Its whistle, combined with the ocean’s interminable shoosh-shoosh, accosted my uncovered ears, so that even my thoughts – thankfully my thoughts – were drowned out.
I paused. I waited. I lingered for just a moment in the moment.
This place, this ocean, it, too, animates me.
Can that be right? How can both the silence and the sound, the stillness and the stir, the earth and the water kindle that which lies within? There is contradiction and friction and tension between the two, but it is a necessary tension, the kind that allows an object on a string to swing in a perfect circle.
Mama’s old Singer, the one on which she stitched all my Easter dresses and school clothes, every curtain that ever hung in our house, and enough dresses and skirts and blouses and coats for the women in town to fill a department store, had on its face a small protruding knob right over the needle. The tension knob, she called it, and explained that this knob regulated the length and tightness of the stitches which are made by the looping together of two threads, one from the spool and one from the bobbin. The spool is the one that sits on top of the machine, the one that spins as the sewer presses the foot pedal. The bobbin is the invisible one, the one that lies hidden beneath the throat plate.
She also taught me that you never ever touched that knob.
I didn’t question the instruction, just followed it. But over time I learned that never ever didn’t really mean never ever. Sometimes the tension knob needs to be adjusted. Making a buttonhole requires an adjustment in the tension. Using a decorative stitch or machine embroidery requires an adjustment in the tension. Pretty much anything other than simply attaching two pieces of fabric to each other necessitates a turn, sometimes an extremely subtle turn, of the tension knob. So what never ever really meant was “This is my machine and I adjust the tension, not you.”
I think I am beginning to understand. I am stitching together experiences and thoughts and emotions to make my life. The spool thread is the land, the constantly visible strand that whirls and twirls so fast that I don’t always notice it until it is suddenly still. The bobbin thread is the sea, less visible, but absolutely essential to the closure of each stitch. And the tension knob is my heart.
I haven’t touched my sewing machine in years. It is in somewhere in the attic, back in the corner with my scrapbooks from college and a set of old deck chairs. I suspect that the belt has dry-rotted and it might take me a few minutes to locate a bobbin, but I am quite certain that muscle memory would guide my hand and wrist from the spool pin to the thread guide, down around the tension knob, up and over the thread take-up lever, down and back through the thread guide to the needle without a single deliberate thought.
Once you’ve learned how, you never forget how to sew. Once you’ve learned how, you never forget how to live.
Copyright 2013

Sunday, January 13, 2013

What Remains

 My friend died.
And I am hurting in a way that death has not hurt me before, a way that has nothing to do with my own mortality or lost opportunity or regret. Hurting in a new place, a place where the loss of adored grandparents did not reach, a place where neither the sudden, tragic death of a classmate or the slow and brutal taking of a cousin dragged me. There is a gnawing in my gut, a gnawing to understand, to put to words the sudden numbness that seized me when I got the news and that faded at unexpected intervals over the next few days to leave me weeping.
On Sunday afternoon I found my way to the pew where we, the women who, as a group, go by any number of appellations, but on that day were simply mourners, would sit together. We’d all worn red, Margaret’s Wesleyan class color, in some form – scarves and jackets, dresses and jewelry –, our mourning clothes splashed with the color of Valentines. We sat as closely as we could, shoulder to shoulder, trying and not succeeding to hide the fact that we were actually leaning on each other.
The congregational hymn was “Jesus Loves Me” and, having seen photographs of Margaret as a child, I could imagine her learning the words at Sunday School in Druid Hills. Learning them not just by memory, but by heart, learning them in such a way as to carry that certainty with her right to the end of her 84 years. After the first verse the words in the hymnal blurred into marbles rolling around the page and I left the singing to more stalwart souls.
The ministers who conducted the service knew Margaret well. We laughed when the senior pastor told the story of how Margaret had asked him why he did some particular thing and, after hearing his answer, replied, “Well, that’s a dumb reason.” After reflection, he’d decided that, in fact, it was a dumb reason and adopted Margaret’s suggestion for doing it another way.
We nodded when he explained that, upon joining the church, Margaret had insisted upon being given something to do. “I didn’t join this church just to sit here.”
Near the end of the service, as the minister’s words and the organ’s notes and the bell’s chimes mingled like some rare incense over our heads in the church’s vaulted ceiling, I had a startling moment of clarity: With Margaret’s death, there was one less person in the world who loved me. One less person who loved me. One less person who loved me. I suppressed the gasp that rose in my throat. I raised my fists to my eyes now incapable of containing the tears.
Outside the church is a prayer chapel. Margaret took me there shortly after its dedication. I wrote about that visit, how after she had told me all about the architectural details, she had left me to be alone. Leaving the funeral I walked up the narrow path to that chapel, noting the plaque at the doorway that indicated the date of dedication – five years ago to the day.
Inside it was exactly as I remembered. Candles flickered. Late winter afternoon light came through the high windows. The stone altar remained fixed, unmoved, unchanged.
I knelt, covered my face with my hands, and realized I had nothing to say. No prayer worth praying. No petition worth offering.
Then I heard it. The voice in my heart. Call her the Holy Spirit. Call her my true self. Call her Margaret. Call her whatever you want. This is what she said: “Love is all that matters. Love is all that matters. Love is all that matters.”
And in that moment I understood. There will be no more endless amounts of food pulled from a seemingly bottomless freezer and no more endless rounds of Mexican Train Dominoes around a table in a mountain cabin. There will be no more picnics in Oakland Cemetery, no more nearly-indecipherable notes, no more unsolicited advice. But her love is still here. Reminding, encouraging, provoking. Soothing, healing, holding.
And love is all that matters.
Copyright 2013