31 March 2008

On Lessons Learned

Lessons we learned as a child stay with us for years. Sometimes we learn them so well they affect our lives forever. This is a good thing with some lessons. My life is a lot safer because I know to look both ways before I cross the street. But some lessons hold us back without our even realizing it.

For example, here's "The Case of the Uncooked Bean." My husband and I love beans and eat them often. Part of my mindful living has been to cook with food as close to its natural state as possible. For beans, that means discarding canned beans and learning to cook dried beans. Google taught me that pressure cookers are the most efficient way of cooking them up.

We purchased a pressure cooker. I already had a bag of black beans in the pantry, so you would think it would be an easy thing to just cook them up one day. But I didn't. The pressure cooker sat in the pantry. And the beans sat in the pantry. And they never came together.

Several months passed and I began to wonder if I would ever use my pressure cooker. So, to force myself to do so, I did something sneaky. I waited until we ran out of canned beans and then planned a meal that required them. Last night, I was faced with having to use it. I took the shiny pan out of it's box and realized that I was horribly nervous. And that was the moment that I remembered the lesson I learned as a child.

My mother used a pressure cooker all the time to cook vegetables and potatoes. The one thing she impressed upon us kids was that pressure cookers were highly dangerous cooking implements likely to result in our disfigurement or even death were we to touch them. Now my mother is a sensible woman and this was good advice: kids should not use pressure cookers. I learned that lesson very well and never used the pressure cooker.

Fast-forward twenty-some odd years. I am thirty-six years old. I own a small business and a house. And I am standing in my kitchen, suspiciously looking at my pressure cooker as though it were a plutonium bomb. I remember my mother's admonitions and began to laugh.

Without my even knowing it, that little lesson I learned as a child held me back. It makes me wonder what other lessons learned are affecting my life even now.

And for the record, while the beans were overdone, no one was disfigured or killed during their cooking. I consider that an unqualified success.

30 March 2008

Mindfulness and Quilt Shows

I've alluded to the practice of mindfulness recently and have discussed how mindfulness has changed the very process of my art, providing me with more patience and productivity. My recent trip to the Lancaster's Quilter's Heritage Celebration shows how mindfulness is also changing my relationship both to my own work and to the greater community of quilters and artist I'm part of.

In the past, I've found quilt shows to be awe-inspiring and angst-inducing in equal measure. While I've always enjoyed looking at the quilts, I've never been able to just enjoy them. That harsh little inner critic was always making comparisons and judgments between my work and the works I was viewing.

I was insecure and trying to find my own vision and place in the art/quilt community. It was easiest to do so by defining myself in opposition to other quilters. I would look at a traditionally quilted piece and think, "I would never make a quilt like that." Or, look at technically perfect art quilt, "I could never make a quilt like that."

Even though I was looking at other people's visions, I made it all about me. What did I think about the piece? Could I make anything like it? Do I have the skills to complete a work like that? Do I have the patience to spend that much time on one piece? Would I ever enter a piece in a show?

Most times, I would walk out inspired and exhausted, dreaming of entering my own quilt in a year or two. But dreams they remained. I expended so much energy comparing myself to others that I had nothing left for myself. My motivation was winning a competition rather than sharing and expressing my vision. That is ultimately not inspiring because the thought of having to win leaves open the possibility of actually losing. And losing was too painful to contemplate.

At least that was my typical response to quilt show before I started practicing mindfulness. But I didn't even realize it until I attended QHC this past Friday.

Friday felt different. I enjoyed the show and each quilt on it's own merits. It wasn't about me, but about each quilter and the time and effort they put into expressing their own vision. I was able to appreciate each quilt for what it was, without judging or comparing. Wow, how did they come up with that idea? What a beautiful quilting design! That's a great combination of fabrics! What patience this quilter must have.

And as I looked at each quilt, I began to feel part of the community of all quilters, regardless of their level of proficiency or preferred style. People often say that they feel a connection to past generations of quilters when they quilt, but I never knew what they meant. But on Friday, I understood that all quilters, whatever our level of proficiency, preferred style, or personal vision, share something in common: to use fabric and thread to create something beautiful.

It wasn't about competition or comparison anymore. Instead, I felt a sense of community and connection. And, I began to hear my muse because her song wasn't drowned out by insecurities and judgments.

I am inspired now to enter a show. The work I have done this year shows me that I have the patience to complete a show-worthy quilt. And the increasing volume of my muse's song tells me I have the vision. I'm no longer concerned about winning or losing (or even whether my piece is actually accepted into the show), but rather I'm motivated by the thought of sharing my vision with the broader quilt community.

29 March 2008

On Patience

Patience is a virtue. And one that most people believe quilters possess in abundance. They ask, "How'd you find the patience to sew all these little pieces of fabric together?" To the uninitiated, we quilters are blessed with inordinate, almost saint-like, patience.

But this isn't true at all. I have been a terribly impatient quilter. Oh, not always. I began as a very patient quilter, realizing that quilting was about the journey, not the destination. That has changed over time.

While I began as a patient quilter, I have always been an inconsistent finisher. Teetering stacks of UFOs began covering my workspace from the moment I took my first quilting class. (To be charitable, maybe it's not so much inconsistent finishing as it is over-enthusiastic beginning. It's hard to resist new projects.)

But regardless, eventually those stacks of UFOs conquered me. I vowed not to begin any new projects unless I could finish them in a day or two. Quick and dirty became my motto and fusible web my new best friend. And so began my impatient quilting.

Patience may be a virtue, but impatience became my favorite vice. When faced with a rare, spare day off, I would race to my studio to start a teeny-little project that I would be sure to finish before the day was over. Improvisational and spontaneous designs became my forte, using raw-edge applique, free-motion embroidery and quilting, couching, and other embellishing techniques.

Because my free time was so sporadic, many times I would head to my studio and accomplish nothing. Knowing I only had four hours to start and finish a project, I put immense pressure on myself to perform. If I had no great ideas within the first hour or so, I'd feel frustrated, abandoned by my muse, and leave a messy studio strewn about with fabric.

These little projects were like potato chips: tasty and addictive, but ultimately neither nurturing nor satisfying. That's not to say I gained nothing from them--I'm still proud of many of the pieces and I learned a number of new techniques--but to make the next leap into quilt art, I would have to rediscover my patience.

Since the beginning of 2008, I have managed to do so, by returning to the basics. I have slowly, diligently, and most importantly, patiently attacked my pile of UFOs, completing 10 projects since January. Now I walk into my studio expecting not to finish a project, but to give it just a few more minutes or a couple more hours.

That's how large projects get done. Not by a whirlwind of frenetic activity until collapse, but by the steady accretion of progress over time. Paradoxically, it's only by slowing down that I have been able to get more done.

But more importantly, with every UFO I conquer, I begin to hear my muse a little louder. She's calling to me. Sometimes whispering. Sometimes singing. Each chorus I hear helps me see my vision a little bit clearly.

I'm going to keep chipping away at my UFOs. Even now I can hear her calling for me and oh, how tempting would it be to drop what I am doing and answer her siren song. But I trust the journey I am on now. Finishing old projects is like closing the door on my former impatient style and making room for a new deliberate, mindful, and patient method of work.

It's a journey of a thousand steps and I have only just begun.

27 March 2008

On Deadlines

I have a keen awareness of time. Given a task, I can accurately estimate how long it will take me to finish it. I know how long a certain dinner will take to cook, or how long I need to edit a newsletter, or how long to mulch a flower bed.

This ability has great benefits. I don't overschedule myself because I have a realistic understanding of my current time needs. I reject new commitments that would overwhelm me (or delete an existing commitment to make room for an exciting new one). I tend to finish tasks ahead of schedule, so I rarely feel the stress of working to a hard external deadline.

That's not to say that my life is deadline-free, however. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I set arbitrary deadlines for myself all the time. It's the key to how I manage my time. If a certain project will take 24 hours and has three component tasks, I set time goals for each task.

For example, yesterday I was piecing a quilt top. I completed the blocks and strip-pieced sashing and knew that I could finish piecing the top and adding borders before the end of the day. So that became my arbitrary deadline: to finish piecing the top, with borders, before bedtime.

I worked on it diligently and patiently for most of the day and was on schedule. But as time passed, I began to feel a little anxious. I began looking past my current work and ahead to the finish line.

While I was racing to finish, my husband arrived home from work and suggested a walk. As we walked and discussed our day, I realized how my day had changed from pleasurable-sewing-in-the-moment to anxious-racing-to-meet-the-deadline. And with that realization, I decided that I was done sewing for the day.

This is always the danger of my arbitrary deadlines--that I lose awareness of the moment and instead focus on the future. Over the past couple of years, I have been practicing mindfulness; that is, conscious awareness of the present moment.

Mindful awareness has made an enormous difference in my daily life.

I am calmer, more relaxed, and less prone to mood swings because I pay attention to little niggles of negative emotion and recognize that they are telling me that something is off-kilter and needs adjustment.

I get more done each day because I do things when I encounter them, rather than putting it aside for some future moment.

I have stronger relationships with family and friends because when I'm with them, I focus on them, rather than being distracted by my own worries or concerns.

I've even lost weight because I have learned to recognize the difference between physical hunger and psychological cravings.

And so yesterday, I found myself falling into old habits of working toward the deadline, rather than living in the moment. When I took a moment to pause, I remembered that I value the peace of mind from mindful living more than the thrill I get from beating a deadline. And so I choose to break that deadline and not return to that project after dinner.

It's a fine balance--learning how to stay in the moment while moving forward. But learning to say "Although the task may not be done, I am," is a small step along the way.

19 March 2008

Doing Things is What I Like to Do

I began the new year by resolving to finish one project a month. I thought that was a nice manageable goal. I am a good obsessive however, so rather than finishing just one project in one month, I have finished nine projects in three months. And I have no intention of stopping. I can see the bottom of my UFO pile and believe that I will conquer it sooner rather than later.

Turning raggedy UFOs into snuggable quilts feels great. But the lessons I am learning about myself and time are actually more important . Some lessons I've learned before but forgotten. Others are simple common sense that had eluded me. What I'm learning now from my newfound productivity is having a positive impact on the rest of my life.

Small moments of time add up. Take fifteen minutes here and twenty-five minutes there and soon you have real progress. Those little pockets of waiting that I usually cast away to the internet have become finished quilts.

Momentum overcomes inertia. Even when I feel like doing nothing, sometimes just a hint of action can beget more action. This is also known as the kitchen-timer trick in my household. So I choose a task (whether it be free-motion quilting a wallhanging or the more mundane chore of cleaning the kitchen), set the timer for a small amount of time (usually somewhere between six and fifteen minutes), and then work on that task until the timer beeps. Ninety percent of the time I find myself shutting off the timer and continuing work.

Reading is a time filler that doesn't always satisfy. This lesson is controversial, I know, but it was a big one to learn. Everyone knows that watching TV is a time filler. That doesn't mean that there isn't a place for TV in our lives, but that place may be smaller than we think. I've found that reading is much the same. Many books I read just for something to do. Now when I feel lost for something to do, I reach for a quilting project instead.

Quilting in the early morning is not a recipe for disaster. Almost every article I've ever read about time management has recommended getting up early and working on things before the day begins. I believed there was no way I could overcome my natural morning grogginess to piece precisely or quilt beautifully. But over the past year, for a variety of reasons, I have become a morning person, and have come to find that early-morning quilting feels luxuriously sinful. There's nothing like heading off to work knowing that I've already piecing 18 rag quilt blocks or sewed the borders on a new wallhanging.

Eating the same meal five times in a week won't kill us. This is a lesson that both my husband and I are learning. I love to cook. Beyond quilting and supporting Liverpool Football Club, cooking is my favorite hobby. I would happily try new recipes five nights a week. But, as much as I love cooking, it's not as big a priority as my quilting. So on Sunday, my husband makes a double-batch of something and we intersperse eating that with other meals. This week, he made lentil soup, and we'll have that for three dinners and two lunches. That leaves me with a lot more time for sewing.

I chose my resolutions for this year very carefully, making sure that they were manageable and concrete. Finishing one project a month was a reasonable and measurable goal. But the lessons I have learned from fulfilling just this one resolution have changed my life immeasurably.

Ah, look at the time! Time to get dressed and get an hour in before work. Ta!