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

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