Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Homemade Life

I enjoy living low on the hog. I was thinking about why this is recently, and I think that even though there were always glimmers, my conscious desire to live simply really kicked in when I was in high school. And as is so often the case with me, it wasn't a perfect slide into simplicity.

My oldest sister found out that she was expecting. This baby was going to be the first grandchild/niece or nephew of the next generation. Really a big deal for our family.

I wanted to commemorate this occasion in a big way, and because I was going to be an auntie for the first time, it seemed only natural that I should do something extravagant for the wee one. Plus there were so many months yet before the babe made its appearance that doing something big was totally within reason. I had the time, so now I just needed to come up with the perfect gift.

I thought and thought and then it hit me. I would make this new little niece or nephew an heirloom to treasure for a lifetime.

I would make a quilt.

Even as a young person I admired the hardy pioneer women who had given up luxury and comfort to follow the dusty Oregon Trail to a new and (hopefully) better life--a life they fashioned with their own hands and determination. I often thought about how these pioneer ladies grew the food that fed their families, chopped the wood that heated their homes and cooked their meals, and spun the fleece that would be turned into the knitted and woven fabric used to clothe and cover their loved ones and I figured these pioneer women wouldn't be intimidated by something as easy as making a quilt surely must be, so I set about my own project.

This was before the internet was a fact of daily life, before you could Google and find out everything you ever wanted to know about, say, quilt making. Oh, I had read The Whole Earth Catalog, and books with titles like Living the Good Life and Five Acres and Independence. But I don't recall ever studying up on how to make a quilt. Still, I'd read the Little House on the Prairie series and I felt confident that I could pull this off.

I decided that I would hand piece this heirloom quilt and then--of course--hand quilt it in minute and glorious designs. I'd seen plenty of pictures of quilts and so I began.

I went to a fabric store and had the presence of mind to buy cotton fabrics, but then undid all the good that came from that decision by failing to preshrink the pieces before cutting out my design, which consisted of a bunch of 4- or 5-inch squares that were quartered into triangles. Tiny pieces.

I chose some soft greens, yellows, and light browns (this was also in the days before ultrasounds) because I thought they looked nice together and would be fitting for both a girl or a boy.

For some reason, I thought that an heirloom quality quilt absolutely had to be pieced by hand and that using a sewing machine for any part of the process would somehow make the quilt less special. So I gathered my pieces of fabric, my needles, pins, and thread and got started.

I stitched and I stitched and I stitched some more. It seemed like no matter how many hours I put into the project I was woefully short of done. Nowhere near. Not even close. The months seemed to fly by and well before I was ready, my niece was born. Thoroughly demoralized, I didn't mention the quilt-in-process I had going. I honored the birth of my sister's baby another way and then pondered what to do with this unfinished quilt.

I thought and I thought and then it hit me. I would make a miniature quilt for my little niece to use with her dollies when she was a bit older. Now I was in business--I had the quilt top done thanks to the new size requirements.

This tale is a sad one. I persevered to the end, hand quilting it, although not nearly as heavily as I had at first envisioned. And the minute, even, and perfect stitches I had dreamed about didn't materialize because the sizing was still in the fabrics since I hadn't prewashed them and sticking the needle through the layers was difficult. When it was bound and completely done, I threw the sweet little doll quilt into the washer to get it clean before I sent it off. I envisioned the look of stunned delight and joy on my sister's face when she first set eyes on the beautiful gift I'd spent hours making for her daughter. But when I pulled the quilt out of the dryer, it had shrunk up so much that the pieced squares were puckered beyond redemption.

But even though my first quilt was a disaster--and even though I've had plenty of disasters since then--I was hooked. I loved the notion of starting "from scratch" and producing something useful for my family. And that philosophy for living a homemade life is still with me.

It's what causes me to hand grind my grain to make homemade bread, to plant a vegetable garden each year and can hundreds of jars of food from the harvest. It's why I sew and wear aprons and dresses and knit warm sweaters, socks, and mittens, why I love to hang the laundry outside and let the soft breeze and warm sunshine dry my clothes for free. It's what moves me to love wood heat above all other heat--even though the wood needs to be split and the wood pile and hearth constantly need sweeping. It's why you can find me hunched near an oil lamp on long winter evenings, knitting or reading by the dim but soothing light.

The joys of learning to make do and be content with the work of my hands have brought me untold satisfaction through the years. And because I choose to live this homemade life, I'm more content (at least I like to think so) than those who believe in what the advertisers are selling, which, in a nutshell, is discontent. We don't need the latest, biggest, or "best." What we need instead is the product of the work of our hands and an attitude of thankfulness for what we do have and the philosophy of "enough."

I further believe that God instilled this self-reliant streak in me. When He plunked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, He gave them everything they could ever want, and then He told them to tend the Garden. And because we can trace our roots back to these two folks, our DNA must include that same imperative.

And so we work and we toil. We take care of those we love and try our best to fashion--with our hearts and hands and determination--a simple life of joy for ourselves and our families. And for those of us who take the time to stop and listen, we hear God whisper in each of our hearts: tend the Garden.

May God richly bless the work of your hands!