My husband just returned from attending a college reunion in another state for several days. It was good for him to have some time with his old friends, and good for me to have some time to myself without worrying about “what’s for dinner.” Besides, I have that art quilt deadline bearing down on me, remember? (See explanation of the “Forced to Flee” global exhibit in my August 4 journal entry titled “In the Desert.”)
Perfect timing: four uninterrupted days to sit in my studio and do nothing but concentrate on my entry. Of course, not exactly; life intrudes. When he left, I was at the embellishment stage of the project which, in this case, meant hand sewing thousands of tiny seed beads along the edges of a desert landscape to mimic mounds of blown sand. This was my fifth, and finally workable solution to this particular design problem, but it was time consuming (about 15 hours) and not without a couple setbacks: my dog (a 130 lb. Greater Swiss Mountain Dog) came in and sat in front of me to watch as I was patiently hand sewing, and then promptly sneezed right into my tray of tiny beads; then the thin, thin needle I was using (the only one I had that would fit) bent and broke, so I had to go out in search of #10 English beading needles. Eventually, with topical embellishments done, layers “sandwiched” and pinned, and a little practice before beginning, I was ready to start the free-motion quilting.
So I have begun, but I haven’t gotten as far as I would have liked. Everyday interruptions in my uninterrupted days caused starts and stops, of course, as did some new mechanical problems that cropped up with my sewing machine. Evaluation of thread colors and stitching patterns made me decide to rip out some of what I had sewn, and complications with a new technique I was attempting sent me back to reference books and You Tube for a refresher. All in all, this whole project has been fraught with false starts, indecision, and technical difficulties from the very beginning. As the submission date nears, I am experiencing a great deal of stress and anxiety, not only because of the looming deadline, but because I fear that my vision surpasses my skill. And that possibility has me questioning the time, effort and commitment I have made to the whole studio art quilt endeavor at this stage of my life.
I recently read an op-ed piece by a Columbia law professor in The New York Times that seemed written just for me, especially right now. It was titled “In Praise of Mediocrity,” and the writer observes that the pursuit of excellence has corrupted our hobbies and inhibited our ability to relax and enjoy our pastimes for their own sake. (Tim Wu, Sunday Review section, September 30, 2018, p. 4). People don’t admit to admit to having hobbies anymore, because they are soooo busy and have noooo time for frivolous activities. If you’re a jogger, for example, it’s not enough just to run around the block; you have to train for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, it’s not enough to wile away a pleasant afternoon; you have to land a gallery show! (Hmmm…sounds familiar.)
I think this attitude is typically American. We are, after all, are a most industrious people who pursue excellence and achievement in everything we do — in education, in the workplace, in our communities, in civic projects, etc. The idea of leisure time, time spent dabbling or simply doing nothing but relaxing, is completely alien to the American character. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Our Protestant work ethic is deeply ingrained. “
Granted, I am a Type A, and a bit of a perfectionist, but as a teacher/professor, my whole life has been dedicated to excellence. “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” I used to preach to my students. Sounds good as a motivating platitude, but I don’t have a lot of words of wisdom to help soothe the frazzled nerves of frustration when “your reach exceeds your grasp.” Not even for myself. Like most Americans, I am product-oriented, not process-oriented. I want to see results and I want to point with pride to my accomplishments — not in competition with anyone else necessarily, but with myself. There are very few things in my life where I will accede that “good is good enough.” Not even in housekeeping.
I have been sewing since I was a teenager, and quilting for over 20 years, but once I began, it became about learning and growing and getting more adept and accomplished. Everything for me is about learning and growing and getting more accomplished. I have been writing for most of my life, but there was never any question that I had to publish, had to be the best, had to achieve a certain level of professionalism. But then, writing and teaching were my professions, so … I have been cooking for most of my married life, at first barely able to boil water, but then over time, more able. I won’t go on to compete on Master Chef as an accomplished home cook any time soon, but I have taken serious cooking courses at the CIA. The only, single activity — dare I say hobby — I do enjoy purely as an amateur, though I had ten years of lessons, is playing the piano. I do it for my own satisfaction, and only play “in public” for my family during the holidays.
This whole last year has been a time of reflection and re-evaluation for me, a time of stress and anxiety, yes, but maybe also a time of growth and hope, in a perverse sort of way. This quilt project is a sort of metaphor for what I’ve been through, and it has become more of an exercise in perseverance than in art. I will finish this by the deadline at the end of this month, but I may not submit it for the juried show if it is not among my best work. And I will be okay with that. The achievement, even for me right now, is sometimes in the doing.
Today is my birthday. As usual, I am reflective. I am re-thinking my goals and ambitions going forward at this stage of my life. To quote one of my favorite authors/thinkers, Toni Morrison, from her 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature, “Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try.”
I will try, both to go forward and to do so with confidence and grace.