Monday, March 1, 2021

God Is with Me Always

 




My father put his hands on the wheel of the car while my brother and I sandwiched ourselves between him and my mother.  Seat belts and car seats were not invented. When we wiggled and squirmed my mother’s hand reached across our laps to hold us still. We were on the way to church.

I walked into a classroom where I played with other children my age. I remember sitting in one of the wooden chairs arranged in a circle. My feet didn’t touch the floor so I dangled them back and forth, looking at my black patent leather shoes, my “Sunday shoes” that I only wore for church or special occasions.

While I waited for the teacher to gather her papers, I smoothed the blue smocked dress, made for me by my mother’s oldest sister, Aunt Helen, a relative I had never met. Red, white and blue  thread criss-crossed my chest. I moved my fingers over the bumpy surface feeling the fabric gathered like an accordion. Maybe one day I might learn to smock. The puffy sleeves made me feel like I was a princess.

I heard the teacher call my name to make sure I was listening before she started the story about Jesus feeding many people from a boy’s small lunch of five fish and two loaves of bread. .Each week she read a Bible story from a printed pamphlet.   She taught us about people who lived long ago and had adventures I didn’t quite understand, and about God and how God could help us. I did not know what God meant.

One Sunday we learned about prayer. She said prayer was talking to God. I still didn’t know what God meant, but I did understand how to talk to someone.

We weren’t old enough to ask questions, but everyone, especially me, enjoyed the coloring page attached to the story.  At home, my mother hid the box of broken crayons on the top shelf of the coat closet in the hallway. I could only color a few times a year when she put the box on the kitchen table. She said coloring was a waste of time, but I liked to draw shapes and houses and think about what colors I wanted to use.  At Sunday school, each child had their own box of brand new crayons. As I opened the box, I breathed in the smell of wax and fresh cardboard. 

After church, my parents picked me up from the classroom. I clutched the handful of papers the teacher gave us about the lesson. She suggested to my parents, “You can review the story we talked about at home. Your daughter can tell you the story in her own words. She is a good listener.”

I smiled hearing the teacher say something nice about me. I rarely heard the adults in my life say that I was good at anything.

When I got home and changed my clothes, I looked at the pictures and thought how the teacher described God and people in the Bible. In time, I had a stack of these handouts on the floor in my bedroom. Anytime I wanted, I could look at the pictures and think about God.

I looked forward to going to church each week, being with someone who smiled at me, and having an opportunity to color.

God became more of a reality in my life when I was seven. I realized my home wasn’t normal because I started looking for another mother. I observed the way other mothers in the neighborhood acted toward their children in loving and kind ways. They combed and brushed their daughters’ hair and put ribbons or barrettes to hold their hair in place. I did not feel loved or cared for. I easily noted the favor my parents gave my younger brother. He was the center of their lives and I felt left out.

During these times when my heart ached for attention, I went to my room to read the Sunday school papers about God, how God listens to our thoughts and how we can talk to God anytime. I remembered how much fun I had coloring the pictures of the stories.

I walked to school by myself envying the two sisters across the street with their matching dresses and hair bows. I wanted to have a bow in my hair too. When I arrived at school, I found my desk and got ready for the day’s assignments.  I had trouble keeping my mind on what I was supposed to do.  I had to read the same paragraph over and over to remember what Alice and Jerry were doing.  Numbers were confusing. I kept writing them backwards. I could add two numbers together, but subtraction didn’t make sense .

 My spelling book was a mess. The letters I wrote were too close together, according to my teacher and I could hardly identify the word. My pencil point kept breaking and I was embarrassed to get up and walk to the sharpener. I was sure everyone was watching, and I wanted no one to notice me.

I wore dresses that were too short paired with my ugly brown leather shoes. My parents only bought me one pair of shoes a year and by the end of school in June, my toes pressed into the front of the shoe.

Although I didn’t know the word anxiety, I feel certain my emotions could be described as anxious. One day sitting at my desk, looking out the window at the school yard, I remembered what the Sunday school teacher  said about talking to God. I didn’t say anything, but I thought about God. In a few minutes I felt different inside. Back then I didn’t have a word for what I felt, but today I would call it peace or comfort. This new feeling brought me back to my desk. I held my pencil a little tighter and worked with a little more clarity to solve the problems in my math workbook.

Walking home from school that day I remembered when I said the word, God, and how I felt inside. Maybe that’s what the teacher meant: God can help us, because God surely helped me stay calm during the rest of the school day.

My family didn’t talk to God and my parents often yelled at each other, but despite what was happening in my home, I could talk to God and feel calm inside. At night before I went to sleep, I shared my fear with God and prayed, “Please help me live tomorrow.”



When I was in fourth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Rossi, had us sing hymns while we passed our papers down the row of desks. Some of the hymns I remembered from church, now that I was old enough to attend the service.  “Come thou Almighty King,” and “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” were two of her favorites. Mrs. Rossi didn’t attend my church, but she knew the same songs I did. Hearing about God in music, even in my public school, nurtured my growing understanding of God.

 “Come Thou Almighty King”  praised God as “Father all glorious” and described God as “Holy Comforter.” “All Things Bright and Beautiful” told how God created flowers, birds, mountains, rivers, the sunset, cold winter wind, and food in the garden. I learned God gave us eyes to see what God created, and lips to tell others about God and what God had made.

I don’t remember if Mrs. Rossi wrote the words to the hymn on the chalkboard or how we learned the song, but all of the children joined in to make music and keep from talking while our papers were collected. She didn’t realize how closely I was listening to these words and absorbing their meaning describing God and how God had created everything on the earth including me.

My family moved to Pennsylvania when I was in the middle of fifth grade. At my new school in fifth and sixth grade, we formed a line to walk to the cafeteria each day.

Before we left our room, the teacher would say a prayer for lunch.  I didn’t know about praying before eating, but these two teachers helped me realize it was good to thank God for the food I was going to eat.  In sixth grade, one student was Jewish.  About once a week, my teacher asked her to pray. First, she said a short prayer in Hebrew, then gave the English translation. I realized that God was present in my friend’s prayers too, even in another language.

Even though God was never mentioned in my home and my parents never read from the Bible, I was learning about God in school and Sunday school. Praying at school and at night, I was slowly learning to build trust in something I couldn’t see or even understand. I experienced how a single word, “God,” made my heart feel lighter and not alone. 

When I was in sixth grade I memorized the catechism of the church outlined for confirmation. I didn’t understand what the words meant nor did the classes I attend make my concentration any clearer. What I did know was that “God”  was becoming as “real” as someone could be without being seen. 

I felt God in my heart when I prayed. I knew I wanted to thank God for the food I ate. I liked going outside and looking at the mountain at the end of our gravel road. Seeing the birds in the trees reminded me of the hymn I sang with Mrs. Rossi  “All Things Bright and Beautiful” describing how God made every living creature.

After I was confirmed, I received a certificate of confirmation in the Episcopal Church, and a silver pendant embossed with a picture of Christ on the front and the words, “I am an Episcopalian,” on the back. I wore this necklace every day. I never took it off. Sometimes, friends in school noted the necklace and asked if I was wearing a dime around my neck. When they realized I had a religious symbol they stopped talking and seemed to feel awkward. I sometimes felt a little shy about this public display of my faith, but I kept wearing it because it helped me feel the strength of Christ.

Right before I entered seventh grade, I made an altar in my closet. On top of a burgundy train case I placed the brown cross necklace I used for singing in the children’s choir at church. Next to the cross, I placed a bright red picture book of children’s prayers along with a copy of “The Book of Common Prayer”  from my confirmation.

When I felt lonely or discouraged or left out I went to my closet and sat next to my altar not knowing exactly what to do, but feeling comfort knowing God in some form was close by.

One day my mother saw my altar and said, “What are you doing with this silliness in your closet?!! You need to take the necklace to church so you don’t forget to wear it on Sunday.”

I was used to my mother’s criticism.  Her favorite words to me were, “You need to change your ways.” I didn’t know what she meant because I thought I was an ok person and didn’t know what I needed to change. I never heard her say, “I love you,” ever.

When I was twelve, attending church took on more meaning.  My faith was developing. Although I still wasn’t sure about who God was, every Sunday the familiar words of the liturgy wrapped around my heart like a cloak. Holy Communion was the first Sunday of the month, the rest of the Sundays the service of Morning Prayer. I knew what to expect when I went to church.



The liturgy was a constant to counter my chaotic life at home. I continued to have difficulty concentrating at school, spending many hours reading and re-reading history and English, and trying again and again to focus on solving math problems. I felt frustrated at my inability to retain what I learned. I knew I was smart, but I know now that the difficulty I had at home clouded my concentration.

I prayed each night throughout junior high and high school. Although the nature of my life at home didn’t change, God sustained me.  My life with God was simple. I said a short prayer every night before I went to bed and continued my practice of thinking about God when I was in school. I did not have a Bible, but I occasionally read prayers from the two books on my altar.

I couldn’t quote scripture like my friends who were Baptist, but I knew the reality of God in my heart, an immediate source of comfort and strength wherever I was.

Throughout elementary school, all classes began by saying the Lord’s Prayer and standing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. My ninth-grade homeroom teacher read to us from the Bible each day following morning announcements. Many of the ways I learned about God, especially in the public school, would not be permitted in this day and age.

The early formative years of my faith were foundational to who I am now as God’s child. I’m so grateful for the ways I learned about God despite not growing up in a home where faith was nurtured. Never underestimate the power of teaching a Sunday school lesson to a four year-old, the effect of passing along the words of a beloved hymn, or how your encouragement as a confirmation mentor might help a child. You never know what a child may be dealing with at home. Your words can be a beam of light directing them toward a life sustained by God’s presence.

 

 

Church Steps

(a poem about my childhood faith experience)

 

Every Sunday I climbed the steps

Half-awake, opened the door,

Entered the tiny vestibule

Tables on both sides,

Held booklets for devotion

Pamphlets about the church year.

 

I walked down the aisle,

My hard, leather shoes making noise,

In a place meant for quiet.

Seated myself on a hard, wooden pew,

My soul cradled by liturgy.

 

People good and bad dotted the rows

I sat near the cross that hung over the

Cloth-covered altar,

In the choir loft,

In front of the sanctuary,

I sang God’s praises

And watched those

Who fell asleep.

 

My faith was sustained and

Refueled by liturgy,

“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

I carried the echo of

Those words in my heart

Wherever I went.

 

In my fingers, I pressed the

Medallion,

The size of a dime,

Dangling around my neck.

Up close the face of Jesus

Beaming at me with strength

For my climb back down the

Steps of the church

To go home.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Unbinding My Hands

 


I was sitting with my mother at the kitchen table eating half a bologna sandwich when we heard a knock on the door.  My mother walked to the door and turned the knob to open it. She returned to the table with a small package from her sister, my aunt Ann who had no husband or children of her own at the time  and, therefore, doted on her nieces and nephews.

 

She lived in New York and I saw her only once a year when my family visited every summer. She always had a surprise for me, usually a little doll. She knew how much I liked dolls.

 

I wondered if the package contained the aqua-colored sweater she was working on for me when I saw her a few months ago.  I was almost eight at the time.  When we got to her house, she said, “I haven’t seen you for almost a year. Before I finish your new sweater I want to measure your arms to make sure the sleeves are the right length.” I held out my arm and was excited to hear I would have a new sweater for winter.

 

 “Do you like these?” Aunt Ann asked, showing me six sparkly buttons attached to a piece of cardboard. “Oh yes, they shine like stars!” I replied.

 

“In a few weeks, I will send a package with some things to keep you warm this winter: two new pairs of mittens, one for you and one for your brother, and the finished sweater. ”

 

Mom opened the package and inside were some boxes of jello, pudding, and cake mix. “Is my sweater in the box?” I asked anxiously, remembering my aunt’s promise.

 

My mother reached in again and pulled out a pair of grey mittens for my brother, red mittens for me, and my much-anticipated sweater.

 

I held the sweater close, sliding my fingers across the buttons. The aqua-colored surface and shimmered brighter than I remembered. The sweater represented more than just an addition to my winter wardrobe. It was also a tangible reminder that someone had thought enough of me to spend hours knitting with me in mind. Putting on the sweater, my slender body warmed.

 

 School bus transportation was not available in the mid-1950s. Students walked to school in rain, cold, and snow. I knew the sweater would keep me extra warm walking the half-mile each way. I wore the sweater all afternoon thinking about the day Aunt Ann measured my arms. The sleeves came right below my wrist, the perfect length. Her attention made me feel noticed, special, and worth the time to let me know through her creative work how much she cared.

 

When I finished my bologna sandwich, I carried the red mittens to my room and put them in my coat pocket ready for the first cold day.  Hanging next to my coat was a light blue dress with puffed sleeves that my mother’s other sister, Helen, had made. Aunt Helen liked to smock.  I was drawn to the grooves of the fabric and the stitches criss-crossing the front of the dress. Sometimes I took the dress off the hanger, sat on my bed, and rubbed my fingers over the red, green, and yellow thread used to gather the pleated fabric across the top of my dress. How did the fabric become pleated like an accordian? I wondered.  My mother used a needle and thread to mend holes in my father’s socks, but smocking was different, a beautiful pattern unlike the simple stitches my mother used.

 

I didn’t know much about knitting  or what tools were used, but I noticed the even rows of stitches Aunt Ann used to make my mittens and sweater, the same stitch for both. I rubbed my fingers over the soft wool and imagined what Aunt Ann might look like when she knit. Where did she sit? Where did she keep the yarn? What did she use to loop the yarn together to make mittens or a sweater? Did she have a pattern? How did she make sleeves on a sweater or a thumb in a glove? I wanted to learn more about Aunt Ann and her knitting.

 

I was grateful for these homemade items, gifts from the hands of these creative relatives who I rarely saw but deeply appreciated. When I asked my mother about needles and thread, or other artistic activities like coloring, she said these activities were a waste of time. She kept our shoebox of broken crayons on a shelf in the coat closet and occasionally let us color. One time Aunt Ann sent us a roll of paper with pictures printed to color, like a coloring book on a scroll. I thought for sure my mother would let us color this gift from her sister, but she put the roll in the crayon box out of reach. We only colored a few times a year. I felt that Aunt Ann would be disappointed if she knew we ignored her gift or didn’t bring the paper with us to show to her when we visited.

 


I wondered why my mother did not  knit or smock like her sisters. Their mother died from diptheria when my mother was 7, my Uncle George, 9, Aunt Ann 11, and Aunt Helen 13. Aunt Ann was so distraught over the loss of her mother that she missed a whole year of school. Perhaps the older girls learned hand-work from their mother before she died and my mother was too young to pick up on these skills. Maybe my mother thought hand-work and coloring to be a waste of time because she didn’t have an opportunity when she was young to do these things. My mother once told me that when she was in first grade, her teacher held up a picture she colored and made fun of it in front of the class. I was sad to hear her story, but since I had crayons and paper, I wondered why I wasn’t allowed draw? Without crayons or paper in reach in our home, my mother’s shame and embarrassment translated into deprivation for my brother and I.

 

One day my mother asked me to help her clean a closet. We took everything out: cleaning supplies, toilet paper, kleenex boxes, towels and washcloths, and a plastic bag with cloth inside.

 

“What in the bag?” I asked my mother.

 

“Oh, that’s an embroidery kit I got a long time ago. I think it’s time I throw it out.”

 

“What is embroidery? Can I see the kit? ”

 

It seemed that my mere presence annoyed her. She threw the bag at me and said, “Here you can look at it yourself. Go out and sit on the side step while I finish.”

 

My mother seemed glad to get me out of her sight. I like being outside and away from her. I sat on the concrete steps at the side of the house and could feel fresh air around my face. Hearing the birds sing made me smile. I watched the clouds moving across the sky, changing shape. I looked down, opened the bag, and pulled out a piece of fabric stamped with x’s and flower petals. I found, a needle, a circle made of wood, a folded paper printed with directions, and some blue, green, and yellow thread cinched around the middle with a black and gold strip of paper.

 

I read the directions and placed the fabric between the two nesting circles, or the hoop as the directions called it. Threading a needle was a challenge for my untrained hands. The hole was so tiny. I tried over and over and finally the thread went through. I followed the directions, knotted the thread and pulled it from the underside of the fabric to the top, and began to push and pull the thread, sewing in and out. With the blue thread, I made an x and then another one until I had a row of blue x’s. “I can embroider,” I said, pleased with my first efforts.

 

However, when I tried to create petals using the daisy stitch again and again, I couldn’t figure out how to make them. They didn’t look at all like the picture. I became discouraged, and went in the house to ask my mother to help. She refused.  I put everything back in the bag, put the bag under my bed and decided to try another day.

 

A week later, when I came home from school, I pulled the bag from under my bed, and went outside to the porch steps. I embroidered another row of blue x’s. Starting to feel more confident, I tried the daisy stitch for the flower petals, but frustration came quickly. I put everything back in the bag, threw it under my bed, disappointed that a few days later my fine motor coordination hadn’t improved enough to make something beautiful.

 

Sadly, my hands remained bound for many decades.

 

When I met my husband, Mike, he was finishing graduate school, preparing to enter the three-year seminary program at Duke University. We married following his first year. Each summer, students are appointed to serve a church. From June to August 1975, Mike pastored two  churches in rural North Carolina about forty-five minutes from where we lived in Durham.

These churches were not large enough to support a full-time pastor. They were used to having students from Duke care for their needs, provide leadership at meetings, assist lay people in making decisions for the church, as well as having a service each Sunday morning. The warmth and gracious hospitality of the people in these churches reflected their gratitude for having a pastor.

 

Many Sunday afternoons and occasionally during the week, we were invited to have dinner with individuals and families in the congregations. We looked forward to going to people’s homes where we would get to know them and the history of the rural area and the church. Most of the families had been in the church for generations and were proud of their long-established heritage. We learned so much by visiting them in a relaxed and informal setting. Being a newlywed, I always took along notecards to record recipes from church members. The southern women were excellent cooks and were generous in sharing their secret ingredients and advice for preparing delicious meals.

 

Annie Watson, an elderly member of one congregation, was a retired teacher who had spent most of her early career in a one-room schoolhouse. She had taught many children who were now adults in the church. One evening, she invited me to share dessert while Mike attended an evening meeting. I was thrilled to have time with “Miss Annie,” as everyone called her. We laughed and talked about teaching

 

“Do you want more cream?” she asked several times while we lingered at the dinner table covered with a lace tablecloth. At first I didn’t know what she meant by “cream.” She chuckled. “Cream is what we in the south call ice cream.” I laughed adding “cream” to my growing list of southern expressions.

 

Of course I wanted more “cream,” and Miss Annie added another scoop to my bowl.

 

Miss Annie had a rack full of quilts in her living room, and a stack piled on the book shelves. I had never heard of a quilt before and wondered if quilts were another part of living in the south.

I was intrigued how combinations of circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles came together in each quilt.

 

“I sewed every last one of them.” Miss Annie said.

 

“Where did you get all of the fabric to make your quilts?” I asked. When I wanted to make a dress, I went to the fabric store, but Miss Annie told me her quilts were like diaries recording the memory of the people who gave her fabric.

 

“You see, most fabric for quilts is made from scraps leftover from projects like making drapes, or dresses, or aprons, or clothes for little ones. Here in the country, we save our scraps and use them to make quilts. My cousins, sister, sisters-in-law, friends, and nieces all have boxes filled with scraps. When we want to make a quilt, we share our scraps with each other.”

 

Miss Annie spread one of her quilts over the couch and pointed to each piece of fabric. “My sister gave me this fabric after she made dresses for work. One of my teacher friends gave me a whole bag of fabric leftover from making drapes and clothes for her little girls. One day I came home from school and saw a bag of fabric ready for the garbage at the end of my neighbor’s driveway. I quickly jumped out of my car, and knocked on her door. She said she was tired of the fabric, didn’t know what to do with it, and decided to throw the bag away. When I asked her if I could have it, she said, ‘Of course, take all you want.’ The fabric she gave me is the border of this quilt. When I look at a piece of fabric, I think about the person who gave it to me. Sometimes I remember a happy time we shared together.”

 

Over the summer, we found most homes we visited for dinner also had a pile of quilts just like Miss Annie. When I asked about the fabric, the stories I heard were similar to Miss Annie’s  - remembrances of people who were special and loved.

 

I enjoyed hearing the stories about these quilts and was fascinated by the way different shapes were put together to make colorful patterns and designs, like when you turn a kaleidoscope and see different pieces of tiny glass in colorful arrangements. I decided when Mike graduated in a few months, and was assigned to a church back in Indiana, I was going to learn to quilt --- and I did.

 

Walking into the YMCA one mid-September evening to swim, I noticed a sign on the community bulletin board for a beginning quilt class offered at the Y on Monday nights for six weeks from 6-8 pm. Before entering the locker room, I took a minute to register at the front desk. I was so excited and could hardly wait to write Miss Annie a letter telling her I was going to learn to quilt just like her.

 

We moved to New Castle, a small town in east central Indiana in June 1976, where Mike was appointed to the First United Methodist Church. We were getting to know the people and adjust to the rhythm of life in the church. We had one car and lived three miles south of town, but Monday was a frequent church meeting night. When I told Mike about the class, we decided to ride in together and park in the church lot, and I could walk to the Y a block away.

 

At the first class, I listened attentively as the teacher, a lawyer from a town fifteen miles south of New Castle, taught the basics of quilting. I learned about batting, how to put fabric together, and how to join the top fabric, batting, and bottom fabric with a special stitch. The teacher suggested we start with a simple pattern: the nine patch alternating solid and patterned fabric.

 

Oh how I wished Miss Annie was there to help. I joined Mike in the parking lot, eager to get home and find the pieces of leftover fabric from curtains I made for Mike and his two roommates when they all were first year students in the Divinity School. Their small apartment had two long windows. I had volunteered to make curtains, if the guys paid for the fabric.

 

I had spent many nights in my own apartment making the curtains, happy to have a project to look forward to after a long day at work. I saved the scraps not knowing how important they would be in the future.

 

Mike usually worked on Saturday morning, making final preparations for Sunday, reviewing his sermon and making sure the sanctuary was ready. If there was a baptism the next day, he filled the water in the fount at the front of the sanctuary. If communion was scheduled, he looked in the church kitchen for juice and bread. He put the bulletins in the narthex where the ushers would hand them out the next day. There was much to do to get ready to welcome a congregation Sunday morning.

 

One Saturday, he came home carrying a box.

 


“Guess what I have for you? “ he said with a twinkle in his eye. I didn’t know but looking at his expression I knew he must have something special.

 

“I told the ladies in the quilting group last Wednesday about your class. They wondered if you had fabric. I told them only a few pieces. Yesterday, I heard a knock on my office door. Marilyn came in holding this box. She said everyone wanted to help you get started with your quilt.”

 

I was so touched by their thoughtfulness. Mike put the box on the floor and I quickly turned it upside down. Out came scraps of  solid fabric, fabric with designs, plaids, cotton, corduroy. A rainbow of color, red, blue, yellow, green, aqua carpeted my floor. Looking at the abundance I realized I had more than enough to start cutting squares for my quilt.

 Although the ladies did not label their fabric, I looked at the pile and felt loved. Their generosity showed that they noticed me and cared about my new interest in their much-loved hobby. This was especially meaningful since I had only known them a few months.

 

I cut the fabric into squares, matching complimentary solids to patterns. Using a running stitch, I hand-sewed the squares together, making twelve nine-patch squares, big enough to cover our double bed. And just like that, my first quilt top was done!!

 

In my final quilting class, I learned how to layer batting, a fiber filler, between the quilt top and bottom fabric.  Sewing these three layers by hand was a challenge. The stitches needed to be short and close together. The teacher explained pioneer women made eleven stitches per inch, but my beginner fingers could only manage four or five. I was looking forward to the coming winter, where I could practice making smaller stitches during the long, dark nights.

 

When I finished the top, I went to the church during the ladies quilting group to show them my work. I pointed to the fabric from the box expressing once again my gratitude for their kindness. I described my friend, Miss Annie, and how each of her quilts was like a diary of her relationship with others who gave her their scraps. They smiled when I told them I would always carry their thoughtfulness in my heart, pictured in my first quilt.  

 

I spent the winter of 1977 sitting on the floor moving an oval wooden hoop over sections of the quilt, working hard to narrow my stitches to seven or eight per inch, binding my quilt together.

 

One night when Mike was at the church for a meeting, I noted my stitches getting shorter and shorter.  Watching my right hand manage the needle and thread and feeling my left hand steady the fabric underneath the hoop, I remembered those days when I wanted to learn how to embroider. I recalled frustration and disappointment sitting outside on the step next to my house. The energy in my hands matched the desire of my heart to create.  At that time, my hands were not developmentally-ready to embroider, but now my hands had the necessary dexterity and an outlet to make beauty. I was grateful for Miss Annie who introduced me to quilting, for the class where I finally received instruction in this form of handwork, and for the dear church ladies who lovingly donated their leftover fabric to a newcomer like me.

 

Sitting on the floor, covered with my quilt, I looked out the window at the dark, dark night. I saw a few stars, shining like the buttons on the aqua sweater my aunt had made. I wished I could share my quilting with Aunt Ann and Aunt Helen, both of whom brought love to me with their handmade gifts when I was growing up. They introduced me to creativity and handwork that I could explore when I got older.


Moving the needle in and out of three layers of fabric, peace came to my heart. The steady rhythm of quilting, watching the needle go in and out of fabric, was calming, meditative. I discovered a deeper meaning than just sewing fabric. This felt like a spiritual practice.

 

Up to that time, I had engaged in prayer while reading my prayer book or being in church. Now I was becoming aware of God’s presence everywhere and in every activity. I felt God near me with every stitch. I wasn’t just putting together fabric from loving friends, I was making a connection to God. I was praying.

 

I felt a strong sense of comfort as I finished my first quilt.The first night I slept under it, I felt surrounded by God’s love and filled with God’s presence. This quilt was a tangible reminder  of the kindness of God and the hospitality of other women.

 

When my youngest daughter left for college, she asked if she could take the quilt with her. For four years she used it, resting under my love, God’s love, and the love of others. She still has the quilt in a box in her garage in Oregon.

 

Through the years, I made many quilts for my daughter’s beds and for their dolls, often using scraps of outgrown dresses I had made for them.

 

In my own home today, stacked on a set of shelves in the family room, I have four quilts over a hundred years old made by Mike’s maternal grandmother. On another shelf, I have two quilts I made for each daughter to celebrate their move from a crib to a big kid bed. Next to this shelf is a lap quilt made by a close friend when my parents died in January 2013. The quilt on the bottom shelf was given to me by the quilting group at Center United Methodist Church in Indianapolis where Mike served from 1983 to 1989.  Full of quilts, my shelves now look like the ones in the homes we visited in rural North Carolina during our early years of ministry.

 

Often I wove together Scripture, my emotional needs, and quilting. For example, in one season, I reflected on Psalm 73:23-38. These verses speak of God’s constant presence, guidance, and assurance. God’s strength will sustain, even in times when “my flesh and my heart seemed like they were failing.” (verse ).

 

To illustrate my broken heart, I drew a large heart on a piece of paper and cut it into seven pieces. Using it as a pattern, I cut a different fabric for each piece and sewed them all together to make a complete heart. When I quilted the pieces onto fabric, each tiny stitch was the cry of my heart to an ever present God. God was with me. (picture)

 

When I wanted to feel the coziness of God around my heart, I pieced together the log cabin pattern where light and dark fabric strips wrap around a yellow square in the middle. The yellow square meant “Light in the window.”  Darkness and light seemed to weave in and out of my life for many years. The log cabin was the perfect picture of what my heart was craving. Once again, as I placed the fabric  and quilted a square, each prayerful stitch brought God’s comfort and companionship. (picture)

 

The most powerful image from Scripture that still grounds my quilting is the story of the woman who suffered from severe bleeding for many years (Mark 5:25-34).  This suffering woman was powered by faith to get through the crowd, believing, “If only I touch his cloak, I will get well” (verse 28). When she reached Jesus and touched his cloak, her bleeding stopped. She felt inside that she was healed of her trouble (verse 29)  Jesus turned around to see who had caused power to go out of him. Trembling with fear, the woman came to him. Jesus said, “My daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your trouble.”

 

The story of the woman and her encounter with Jesus was a connection that became foundational to my quilting.  Every time I held fabric or quilted, I imaged myself touching Jesus’ cloak. I longed for my own wellness. I felt when I had fabric in my hands, I was connected to his hem, reaching out for comfort, courage, support, strength, and companionship. (picture) In difficult times, I could relate to Jesus through my familiarity with cloth. Later, I would be able to connect with Jesus for who he was beyond just what he wore, but the idea of the cloth at the edge of his robe was an unthreatening starting point. I could eventually look at him face to face without fear. I could imagine him calling me daughter.

 

Although I did not have a mother who was interested in helping me learn to work with my hands, I had two aunts, whose small gifts of handwork opened my eyes to creativity and introduced me to the possibilities of what I could craft with my hands.  And I had the women in our churches, like Miss Annie and those who gave me scraps to make my first quilt. They encouraged my interest in quilting and introduced me to a serendipitous connection to God.  

Monday, January 11, 2021

Graham Cracker Comfort: Revisiting the Past through Words and Papercraft

 


Going back and forth on the swing in my backyard, I imagined if I went high enough my footprints would reach the sky leaving an imprint. I thought if all of the children in the world were swinging and left their footprints, what an interesting pattern would remain in the sky – feet of different shapes and sizes and shoe prints, too, an interesting mural that would go around the world with the turn of the earth. As a child, I sought comfort wherever I could find it. Usually that meant being alone.

I got to have the backyard to myself. My brother preferred to rock on his wooden horse in the living room while talking to my mother and father. He never was an outdoors person. I was grateful for these moments when I could be by myself, creating a world of safety and imaginary companionship. Every night after dinner I escaped to our small backyard with the swingset in the middle. I wandered around thinking about all the longings of my heart: ribbons for my hair, pretty dresses, saddle shoes to replace the brown leather pair I got at the beginning of every school year, and the box of broken crayons on the top shelf of the closet, things other girls had that I wanted for myself.

I cradled my teddy bear, stuffed rabbit, pink blanket, and my doll, Snuzy, on the swing. Sometimes, I spread the blanket on the ground and it became an island where my doll, stuffed animals, and I lived together. Looking back on these times in the backyard, I believe these activities were more dissociative rather than mere child’s imagination. Unable to cope with my home life, I “went away” creating my own place to live.

My home didn’t feel safe and neither did the world. The Soviet Union was becoming more of a force among the nations with the launch of Sputnik. The educational system of the United States was thrown into a state of re-evaluation. What are American children learning? Are they behind their peers overseas? How could the Russians beat the United States in technology and space exploration? All of these questions circulated on the news and in newspapers regularly.

I was afraid Sputnik would land on the roof of my house and make a big hole. No one had explained to me the orbital nature of the space vehicle. All I knew is what goes up must fall down. I assumed it would fall down on me. Hearing bits and pieces of the national news on television each night describing the Russian accomplishments, fear grew in my mind. In a childhood like mine, I didn’t need more fear.

At school, I had difficulty concentrating, unable to be fully present and attentive to classroom assignments. My desk, like my pink blanket, became the island where I felt safe and lived within myself.

Life at home was restricting with little activity, variety, or excitement: no after school activities or enrichment, no friends coming over, no parties to attend. I went to school, played in the backyard, and went to bed. That was it. Occasionally the neighborhood children came over to join my brother and I in the sandbox, but exchanges between families were limited in my

neighborhood in the mid-1950s. Neighbors rarely lingered in backyards to talk. Having one car during the fifties was normal because the father was usually the only one who worked. Many mothers were stuck at home unable to take children to parks or the library.

“Lazarus is having a big sale today,” my mother announced after breakfast one warm morning, “We are going downtown this afternoon. We’ll eat an early lunch and be ready for the 1:00 bus.” Lazarus was my mother’s favorite store. Once each summer, she took my brother and I downtown to shop. We caught the city bus in front of our house. Malls weren’t built until the early sixties and department stores were located downtown. My mother made me wear a dress, and Sunday shoes. She wore a dress, too.

I didn’t like shopping, but I did enjoy the bus ride and the graham cracker sandwiches my mother made for a snack.

While I took the empty plates from the kitchen table to the sink, my mother reached for the box of graham crackers in the back of the kitchen cupboard. She kept them where my brother and I couldn’t reach them. No extra snacks in my house even though I often opened the cupboard door, looking at the box, wishing for just one graham cracker, something that would taste good and offer respite from the stress of my home life. I liked graham crackers. In today’s language, I would call them my comfort food. I liked to bite the cracker and hear the crisp crack. The whole wheat taste was interesting to me. My food experiences were limited on my family’s tight budget.

Getting the container of icing from the refrigerator, my mother took two crackers, spread one with icing and covered the top with the other graham cracker. She made one for me and one for my brother, both wrapped in wax paper. There were no baggies or plastic wrap in those days. She put our treat in her purse. If my brother and I behaved, she would give us a graham cracker while we were shopping, so she could look at items in the store and give us something to do. A snack is always good in the middle of the afternoon for two children not interested in shopping, especially when their mother was not looking for anything for them.

“It’s almost one o’clock.” I said, proud of my recent ability to tell time. “ The bus will be here soon.”

“Give me your hand, “ my mother said to my brother. She walked out the door, while I paused behind to make sure the door was locked.

“I hear the bus,” I said, the loud engine noise penetrated the quiet day. I smelled the fumes of diesel gasoline.

Going downtown was a break from the monotony of my daily life. I got away from home, and was refreshed seeing new surroundings and people. With only one car, I rarely had opportunities to go places. Riding the bus, I saw many kinds of people. I liked seeing the shapes and colors of the downtown buildings. The houses often had crumbling cement porches, broken windows, or chairs in the front yard arranged in a circle. I imagined family or neighbors gathering to talk on a hot summer night, maybe wondering about the Russians, Sputnik, or the election or sharing events of their days.

Lazarus was a large and busy store with seven floors. We always went to the fifth floor where my mother paid her bill. She shopped for purses and jewelry and clothes for herself, never anything for me or my brother.

Toward five o'clock we made our way to the store entrance where my father would pick us up on his way home from work, not too far from downtown. Getting in the car brought me back to a place I didn’t like nor did I desire to live. My stomach churned and knotted. I felt sad having to return home and not being able to observe more fully this place so different from my usual surroundings.

I wished many times to get on the city bus armed with my pink blanket, rabbit, doll and teddy bear and keep riding all day. I figured a nice lady would see me and wonder why a child was riding on the bus by herself. Maybe I could find a new family. “Would you like to come live with me?,” I imagined her saying, “I have a nice home and wonderful husband. We would love you so much. I have a box filled with ribbons for your hair. We can go shopping for dresses and saddle shoes. Best of all, I have a room filled with paint, brushes, paper, and crayons where you can make art every day after school.”

The life I created in my imagination was not accurate nor did my desires come true, but thinking about a loving home offered comfort during the trying experiences I was having.

As that day has come back to my memory in recent years, I needed to find something positive while flashbacks of abuse consumed my days. Using my left hand and a black pen, I drew a side-view picture of myself when I was seven and eight, wearing my favorite dress. It was the one I wore for my second grade school picture. The dress was all one piece, a white blouse, red jacket, and a pleated navy skirt. In my left hand I held a graham cracker. I drew my socks and ugly brown shoes. I wrote the word comfort in a little block, describing the simple, pleasant taste of graham crackers in a trying time of my life.

When I finished drawing I took an exacto knife with my right hand and cut out key parts of the illustration – the white collar, the sleeve, and bottom part of the jacket, the pleats of the skirt, my legs, socks, the letters spelling the word “comfort,” and lines around the square. An exacto knife seemed an appropriate tool to use because I felt like I was carving out of my heart those horrible memories, bringing them to the surface of my life so I could deal with the feelings of loss, rejection, and abandonment. With each movement of my hand, I felt my heart open and release moments that had been buried for decades. Art can provide an emotional opening, creating a picture from the past, exploring the pieces, and finally letting them go.

After cutting out the highlights of my picture, I mounted the white paper on a sheet of black construction paper making the empty places stand out. There were lots of empty places in my

life during those years, emptiness so deep that not even my imagination or dissociative events could fill it. Empty places are part of the human condition. We all have them in various ways: disappointments, impaired relationships, denied expectations, obstacles to success. Filling these spaces takes moments of self-examination and honesty and the ability to acknowledge and accept the difficult realities on our life’s path.

There are numerous unhealthy ways to fill empty places: drugs, alcohol, and other addictive behavior. These are quick fixes and barely skim the deep meaning of loss. Seeking more wholesome paths to wellness requires strength, courage, resilience, and perseverance, but the end result is worth the process, bringing a healthier life.

Exploring empty places in my life through art and word helps me work through loss. Art and prayer are synonymous for me, God guiding my hand in what I make. God’s companionship walking side-by-side is healing through God’s presence as well as making an image to represent my loss. In illustrating the loss, I am filled with God’s love, emerging with both feet on the ground, sustained, uplifted, and becoming whole.

What are the empty places you feel in your life? How will you explore the deep need and express the loss? What practice will you embrace to fill those empty spaces and restore sound living?

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Creating My Own Light: Art for Advent


 Flashbacks filled my days and nightmares tormented my sleep. As frightening memories of my past were emerging in November 2004, I was also busy working, caring for one child who was in high school and one out of college, and helping in several ministries at church. Trying to hold myself together and somehow stay present to everyday life was an exhausting challenge. 

Darkness seemed my constant companion. With Advent approaching, I clung to the Scripture in John 1:5 “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” I carried these words of hope wherever I went, whispering them under my breath, praying God would sustain me through these days.

During counseling sessions I poured forth memories. My counselor received and held them. But the flashbacks and nightmares weren’t going away. Desperate to find color and meaning when everything seemed dark, I decided it was time to create my own light.

I turned to the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke 1 and 2. As I read, I wondered what Mary was doing when the angel interrupted her and told her she was going to be pregnant with God’s son. Was she making bread, caring for animals, or sewing clothes? I was curious what Joseph thought as an angel came to him in a dream describing Jesus’ impending birth. Was he afraid or puzzled? Or was he astonished that he had a place in the story that would fulfill Scripture written in ages past? Although Mary is often described as a picture of obedience to God’s calling, Joseph too was obedient, awakening from the dream, holding firm with his plans to wed Mary, joining her on the path of divine pregnancy no matter what challenges would come.

In my own life, I pictured God weaving strength and courage deep into my heart. I picked up some strips of fabric and began to weave them one over the other, illustrating what I wanted God to do and what I felt God wanting to do in me. Touching the tan and white strips of smooth muslin and moving each one over and under, over and under, helped me stay present and brought comfort. The strips reminded me of the swaddling cloth used to wrap newborn Jesus. This weaving process created the perfect background for a new piece of art emerging as I meditated on the Christmas story.

I found a piece of common white paper, a pen, watercolors, scissors and thread. On the paper, I used a pencil to draw Mary with long dark braids. I drew small squares as patches of fabric on her clothes, remembering she came from a humble family. In her arms, she holds Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloths. 

I pictured Joseph with shorter hair and a beard. He holds a burning candle proclaiming, “Jesus is the light of the world!” The light I was seeking had become flesh.

I pulled out a child’s palette of paints to add color to my pencil sketches. When the watercolor dried, I cut out each figure and object and anchored them to the woven cloth background with a needle and thread.

The star was bright and colorful symbolizing light coming to the world. Recently, when I showed the manger scene to a friend, she said the colors scattered in the straw of the manger looked like birthday confetti, representing the hope and joy Jesus brought into the world that night.

Sixteen years later as I look at my picture of the manger scene, I still sense both the darkness and my need for light. Our small family hasn’t been together since September 2018, when our younger daughter got married. Much-anticipated visits planned over the past year were canceled due to the pandemic. We are simultaneously joyous and heartbroken as we welcomed our first grandchild born in May but we have yet to meet him. He and his parents live in Oregon, a state still in stage one of shutdown with rising COVID cases like most of the United States.

My days volunteering at a local hospital and elementary school, places where I experienced connection and community while I served, are suspended indefinitely.

Others across the country have lost loved ones from the virus. Many forms of loss imposed by this disease, such as unemployment, illness, virtual school, financial difficulties, and strained relationships have turned our routines upside down. It’s a good time for a Savior once again.

Mary and Joseph are models of obedience, listening and responding to God’s desire for their lives. They give us the example of trust in God and commitment to each other. Although neither may have practiced the same “spiritual disciplines” as we know them today, their hearts were open to receiving God’s word, whether from an angel or in a dream. 

Mary and Joseph experienced darkness in their lives too. An unexpected and unusual pregnancy before marriage surely brought disruption to their days. Explaining their circumstances to family and relatives – “A baby, from God? How can this be?” surely created confusion and disbelief in those who loved them.

This young couple offers light in their willingness to follow God’s leading despite what others may have said. Their example in fulfilling God’s story written by the prophets and carried through in their actions gives us encouragement for our days when we have uncertainty and doubt.

Take a moment and consider what difficulties the corona virus has brought to you. Make a list. Sometimes writing struggles on paper is a way to release what is held in your heart.

Now, how can you create your own light?

First, light a candle to remind you, God is here, God is with me.

Make a collage. I find art an easy way to open my heart when I am troubled. Gather a few catalogues or magazines, scissors, a glue stick and paper. Look at pictures or words on these pages.  What attracts your attention? What feelings surface as you work?  What thoughts or memories come as you  leaf through the pages? Arrange what you found and glue to the paper.

When you finish, step away for an hour or two. When you return, reflect on your collage. Write a few sentences describing the thoughts, memories or longings you see in what you chose. What key words or themes come as you write? Name your collage and write the date on the back of the paper. Put the collage in a place you can see throughout Advent.

I am thankful for the Advent drawing I created years ago. I am amazed at how relevant the picture is today, still speaking to me of God’s hope and light in a dark time. 

Prayer:  God, these times of health and safety concerns can create anxiety and unease.  Let the hope of Advent come through strongly so we can see the faith and trust Mary and Joseph placed in you when they received unexpected news. Let us too, follow them on our own way to Bethlehem, and settle in the light brought forth in Jesus. Create in us new light moment by moment so in these unusual times we may not feel distanced from you, but close in heart. We depend on your strength and companionship at all times. Let your presence be our light each day. Amen.

 

Monday, November 23, 2020

What is God thankful for?

 My next guest to share her thoughts is my friend, Lori. I met Lori shortly after Mike was appointed to serve at Fishers United Methodist Church, in June, 1996. Lori's daughter and my youngest daughter were the same age, enjoying many youth group experiences. Mike and I appreciate Lori, her husband, Dave, her daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren, and son.

Lori commented, "I have been pondering on this from your 'Gather the Pieces' post. What a thought provoking question!

I think God is thankful that His churches are persevering during these crazy times when we can't gather in person. We're holding on-line worship and zoom calls for the smaller groups like Sunday School, church meetings, etc. We are not to be stopped!!

This does beg the question though, which is how we could do this as effectively without the technology we have. Maybe I shouldn't think on that too much. We DO have this technology today so it's good that we use it.

There are other ministries not so dependent on the current technology: the food pantry, youth gatherings, work continuing in the church office.

I guess the bottom line for me is that I think God is thankful for our perseverance and dedication to staying connected to Him and our fellow Christians.

I'll be thinking about it more I'm sure."

I am thankful for Lori's sharing.  I pray her words will give you additional thoughts this week as we get closer to Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

What is God thankful for?

 Friends, last week I posed the question, "What is God thankful for?" I invited responses and will share what I received this week. 

I have known my friend, Betty, for over thirty years. She, her late husband, Keith, and son, Michael were active members of First United Methodist Church, in Vincennes, Indiana, where Mike served seven years.

 Betty and I taught reading at Vincennes University.  She did a great job my first semester, helping me understand the details of testing students and using a curriculum designed to improve their reading skills. I am thankful we have kept in touch over the decades. 

Betty replied, "Here are a couple of things that came to mind with your question:

---- He is thankful for every prayer that is offered in whatever verbal or mindful form they are presented as they express that we are dependent on Him for all our details of life.

 ---- He is thankful when we call upon the name of Jesus in love, in need, in gratitude, in pain, in joy, and even in sorrow as it shows Him that we love and appreciate His gift of His son.

 ---- He is thankful for acts of kindness from person to person no matter how large or small no matter if planned or random as it shows Him we are paying attention to Jesus' example of how to live and love.

 ---- He is thankful when little children raise the name of Jesus either with questions or with wonder as they show Him that someone in the child's life is leading them in the path of Christ."

Thank you, Betty, for taking time to reflect and record your thoughts. I pray God's blessing on those who read what God gave you.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Greetings

 Readers - Thank you for following along the recent six week series on wellness. I hope some of the ideas or projects gave you thoughts for your own life.

In a couple of weeks, I will post an Advent reflection called, "Creating Your Own Light." We all need light in different ways during these challenging times.

As you enter a time of preparation for Thanksgiving, here is a question to ponder, "What is God thankful for?"

If you can, send me an email with your thoughts. I am interested in your perspective on this topic - jreed46038@hotmail.com.

Jacquie