Pattern — a visible recurring design, an arrangement or a sequence, a model or example for others to follow. Patterns are everywhere, especially in nature. Just think of the wind-blown designs in sand, the symmetry of flower petals, the spirals of sea shells, or the stripes on a zebra. Patterns like these are easy to see, but some, such as those inherent in family relationships, are harder to find. We may have to search for them, but they are there. We just have to stop and look, and then try to learn from them.
Early philosophers such as Plato and Pythagoras studied patterns in an attempt to explain the intrinsic order found in the natural world and to define the universal relationship of the parts to the whole. Down through the centuries, further explorations in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and electronic circuitry revealed geometric archetypes (fractals, triangles, spheres, etc.). Primordial patterns evoke the familiar, which in turn promotes a deeper level of intellectual and emotional understanding. Little wonder, then, that beautiful patterns find wide expression in the arts, in painting, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture. They “speak” to us aesthetically, even spiritually, regardless of who or where we are. One doesn’t have to be Muslim, for example, to relate to the inspiring beauty of geometric tiles and floral mosaics that decorate the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi (above).
Ive been thinking a lot about patterns lately, as I often do in periods of transition in my life. I am in just such a period now. Having lost my Mother after years of being her sole caretaker, during which I had steadily reduced other day-to-day obligations and systematically withdrawn from scheduled activities because demands for her care increased, I now find myself in a huge void. Suddenly I have time for myself to do …what? After being over-extended and completely responsible for someone else’s life for so long, I’m not sure I now know how to make decisions about my own life anymore. You might say I’m in an existential “holding pattern.”
Patterns. Guides. Templates. It seems to me that I have been working within patterns my whole life, trying to identify them in my behavior, to master them in my work, to expand upon them in my art, and to help others recognize and develop their own. Conventional patterns, tested and true, introduce us to ways of doing and thinking about things, whether that means methods of speaking and behaving, designing or drawing, assembling or building. Gaining confidence in our ways of doing things provides a platform for further growth, a safety net of sorts, provided these patterns don’t become rigid and stultifying.
The first recollection I have of any conscious attention to a pattern is from early elementary school when I was painstakingly learning to write in cursive. I can still feel the sweaty grip of that #2 pencil in my hot little hand as I arduously traced the loops and curves of the alphabet, and can still summon the pride of success in forming them into words. And I still predominately write in cursive today, in my journals, in cards and letters, and in the rough first drafts of articles and essays. The persistent habit of hand writing has also helped me discover the delight of using fine papers and pens; I have quite a collection of both, but am always on the lookout for ever more exquisite additions.
In retrospect, I now see how that the most basic act of learning to write led to the more important intellectual studies of patterns in language and literature and, ultimately, to my growth as a critical reader, a professional writer, and a teacher. Most of my life has been devoted to the study of words, their meanings, their nuances, their power — and that has brought me great joy and professional satisfaction. Now that I have more time to concentrate on new ideas and pursue new publication opportunities, I have to decide what’s next.
Likewise, I started sewing at a young age, first tutored by my mother in handwork and doll clothes, and later learning machine construction through simple tissue patterns — McCall’s, Simplicity, Butterick, and MUCH later, Vogue. Once again, I fell in love with the materials, with beautiful fabrics, smooth threads and shiny beads. I didn’t start quilting until about 15 years ago when I saw a Redwork quilt top displayed in a shop and immediately bought the Alex Anderson pattern to make it myself. Never mind that the project was way beyond my “zero quilting skills” at the time. It motivated me to take classes, to explore other patterns, and eventually, to move beyond traditional quilting and start creating and exhibiting original art quilts of my own. Now that my most recent work, “Toward Za’atari,” (see in the Gallery) was rejected from a global exhibition, however, I have to learn from my mistakes and decide on a new project and direction.
The thing about patterns of any kind is that they are always best seen from a distance, either spatial or over time: the topography on the earth’s surface is best appreciated from an arial view, a newly-written essay is best left to steep for a while before its final edit, the elements of an art quilt are best evaluated by stepping back from the design board. Situations change, people go away, and the patterns of your life, and your life’s work, must be adjusted accordingly. Only by seeing clearly where you are and what is beyond can you possibly decide where to land. Otherwise, you remain stuck in a holding pattern.
They say one great benefit of age is the ability to take “the long view,” to step back with perspective and recognize what really matters and what doesn’t. That may be true, but it’s not easy to plan how to go forward when most of your life is behind you.
The dreary, cold, depressing days of January seem especially suited to the task.