The Evening of Dr. King's Birthday
On Sunday evening I muted the Golden Globe Awards and read Martin Luther King's speech. It's not the first time I've read or heard those words, but for some reason their meaning was clearer this time. I went to bed, but didn't sleep. I kept picturing the National Mall in 1963, crowded with 200,00 people, listening. "I have a dream..." Then I pictured the people gone, replaced by a gigantic quilt. Not the Aids Memorial Quilt that visited the Mall years ago, but an enormous crazy quilt.
The Quilt Dream
I wasn't asleep, but I couldn't stop my brain from visualizing this enormous puzzle of fabrics... crooked triangles, penny sized circles, long slivers and jagged stars. The material, I imagined had as many different textures as shapes and each individual cloth had it's very own smell...hints of the person who wore the apron or denim or satin.
And then I imagined people coming towards this massive quilt...people as varied as the shapes, colors and textures...And then I begged my brain to turn off and let me sleep. But it wouldn't, until I agreed to just take my own simple, storytelling Magic Quilt to visit the kids at the shelter the next day. They often help me with storytelling, so they would help me finish this story!
Quilts & Cooperation
I had been to the Women's Shelter earlier in the week. My theme with the Quilt Kids had been simply "Quilt". That's a warm and cozy theme for winter. But it also leads to discussion about what goes into quilt making. The groups long ago who made quilts, whether they were Amish or they were slaves or they were farm women, all came together and cooperated to create a good thing. While these quilters worked, they shared stories, songs and ideas. We tied this thought into some of Dr. King's hopes and dreams...of people coming together.
Waking Up Pickles
On Monday afternoon, I headed to the shelter with the Quilt and my puppet. A school holiday and an oddly fierce wind gave the kids playing outside a strange energy.
We found an empty room inside and the kids spread out the quilt. The kids drained a little of their energy with a couple rounds of the Quilt Song, which allowed them to jump and sing and point to things on the quilt.
Then they begged to wake Pickles from his sleeping bag with their singing voices. The 2 year old thought Pickles was real, but even the 9 year olds played along and took turns trying to sing him awake!
When the puppet emerged, he was groggy as he often is. He croaked in a confused voice, "I had a dream..." There was a long pause and then an energetic 8 year old boy lunged forward. "Like..like..like... Martin Luther King!!" Too perfect, I thought.
Shapes & Fabrics
Pickles told them a bit about his dream, but he yawned and I put him back in the bag. I told the kids I would tell the dream story, but they would have to help. When I described some of the shapes on the quilt, they added their own. The nine year old boy blurted out, "Trapezoid! Rhombus!" like he was answering a quiz.
"A heart." added a shy six year old girl. When we talked about the textures and the kids reached out and felt the cotton quilt, but imagined lace and velvet and scratchy wool. The enthusiasm rose the highest when they argued about which celebrity singer wore the silk gown that was part of the quilt. They listed singers I've never heard of!
We talked about the smells of the cloth shapes. "The piece of baby blanket...how does it smell?" I asked...then cautioned; "Only good smells, please." There was only a moment before a young boy, who must have a tiny sibling, answered. "Baby powder and... baby hair." As if he had no idea how sweet that was.
They loved the smells, especially when imagining Grandma's apron. "Cookies..." They could have talked kitchen smells all day, but I wanted more than food. "Perfume." Said the girl...not so shy anymore...thinking about the satin gown. And the last idea came from the child in the group who is least able to sit still. "A book." He said smiling, holding his palms open. Where did that come from? There was no adult whispering in his ear.
We finished the talk of smells by imagining all the smells of the quilt combining to form one perfect smell. We counted to three and each took a long moment to inhale. Their expressions showed how glorious that scent was. And I knew from experience to cherish this moment for only a second because all it takes is one puffy cheeked giggle to change the whole mood. We moved on.
People Came to the Quilt
The story progressed and we imagined people from all over America coming to the quilt. We pictured an old farmer hobbling with a cane, a baby crawling, an athlete running. We imagined people of all sizes and shapes. We didn't need to imagine different skin color...our group already had a perfect mixture. And then we pictured people coming from even further away!
I had no books with me to show them images, but they came up with their own ideas of fabric, worn by the people arriving from Iceland and Africa and Japan. "Don't forget about Jamaica!" said the 9 year old boy wearing the colors of Jamaica on his shirt.
"What will they do when they get to the quilt?" I asked. The once shy girl said, "They won't know how to talk to each other." We imagined the people staring at the quilt, then staring at each other. We decided it was a crawling baby who first moved onto the quilt, and the others followed. So the Quilt Kids moved off the border of the quilt and moved towards the center. Like kids, they squished close and giggled. Like a teacher, I reminded them how big the quilt was and how there was room for everyone to have their own space. And they suddenly relished having their own cozy spot, all their own.
After pausing the story because one little boy lost his tooth, we returned to the problem in the story. I asked, "If they don't speak the same language, then what happens?" "Hola!" laughed one boy who comes from a Spanish speaking family. "Bonjour!" Said a girl who is not French. "Aloha!" Said another and that was all they could come up with, before they decided the power of the quilt would help them somehow understand each other. Martin Luther King would have liked that, we agreed. Should we put him in our story? I obviously was steering this towards what I thought would be an ideal ending.
Star of Our Story
And then because they are children, real children, they ended the story like this...
"Seeing all these people from so many places getting along, made Dr. King so happy that he came. Right in the very middle of the quilt he appeared." (I wondered if they were taking this somewhere very religious) "How?" I asked. And after a tiny bit of discussion the small group happily concluded, "He came rising up, you know... that thing that floats up on a stage. The way Justin Bieber does!" And I grinned and the kids beamed with their thought. "Good ending." I said. And it was time for snack in the kitchen.
What I learned:
Kids can surprise you with their thoughts. Their words can be as sweet as storybook words. But they can also touch you with their honesty. You can keep the discussion as positive as a Magic Quilt story, but they still want to know about Dr. King's death. I told them I was a child when Dr. King died and that his funeral was on my 11th birthday. "Did you have a party?" the quiet girl asked.
One of the hardest things about leading the Quilt Group, is knowing I may have to say good-bye to some of my friends. We had to say good-bye to Pat this week. She was more than a member of the Quilt Group, she was my mother's roommate for over three years. Both were independent, strong personalities...raised as only children. But they became like sisters, bickering a tiny bit in the beginning and holding hands more towards the end. Alzheimer's eventually took away Pat's abiltiy to walk and converse, but it never took away her ability to smile and laugh. Her humor was with her right up to the end.
It's been a little while since Pat has been able to join the Quilt Group. Our 1 pm time slot didn't work very well as she began to need more rest after lunch. But the thing I remember about Pat when she did join us, was how she loved the books! Out of all the things I would throw out on the table to invite discussion... or remembering, Pat would reach for a book!
In memory of Pat I have ordered a beautiful book called Stichin' and Pullin' a Gee's Bend Quilt, to be shared with all the Quilt Group folks. There is a quote in the book, "Cloth has memory." This quilt remembers Pat!
The Magic Quilt
The quilt looks a little Magic here, in the glow of the morning sun. It also looks a bit lonely with no children on top or seniors gathered around.
I made this quilt nearly 20 years ago to replace an old family quilt I destroyed from overuse with children. And even before I lugged quilts to classrooms for storytelling, I used rugs when I was a kid myself, babysitting younger children. You could get kids to brush their teeth faster if you promised to play "flying carpet" for a few minutes before bed!
I will admit, I used to sometimes feel guilty about getting paid for pretending with kids! I love telling stories and I love having children add their own imagination to the story telling. Why else would we have two Rapunzels in this story? These children at The College School in Webster Groves, Missouri brought their own version of Rapunzel to life and eventually put it on film. Incidentally, one of these Rapunzels is grown and has played major roles alongside Reese Witherspoon and Glenn Close.
Is no one listening to me? Is my son pouting?
This photo is the only one I have of the old quilt in use. This was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the quilt began to lose chunks of fluff and batting with each class.
I think it's just a bad photo, but we could probably use it to make a point that I had no control or enthusiasm because I needed a new Magic Quilt!
The New Quilt
So I finally bought material, used my mother's old feisty machine and created this 9X9 foot quilt. (real quilters would not be impressed)
I created a sitting space with borders, so children could "sit on the blue" and focus inward. The printed material was inviting to kids. There were animals and crayons and boats and things to sing or talk about.
It worked. Whether it was the soft material or the colors, or the cozy island feel of being together on a space, the quilt unified us. I learned quickly that I had more control with kids on this quilt. The wilder kids seemed calmer. The quieter kids grew more animated. Children listened longer to my quilt stories and their enthusiasm motivated me to create more.
Magic Quilt Classes
I had so much fun making up stories about all the places the Magic Quilt could take us, that I ended up teaching classes that revolved around these silly "what if" stories.
The photo above, shows kids at Center of Contemporary Arts in St. Louis, practicing a little percussion before acting out a story about an imaginary trip to a jungle. Between the storytelling and the acting, there had to be lot of time to explore and create...games and music...costume and prop making!
Comfort of the Quilt
These kids are in a Magic Quilt class in Sugar Land, Texas. They're having fun, which has been my goal for using the quilt with kids. However in recent years I've started using the quilt in places where it is more needed...where it can bring comfort and support as well.
I am not allowed to photograph the kids who now pretend with the quilt on visits to the Fort Bend County Women's Shelter. I also have no pictures from when I used the quilt with children at the Astrodome and the Red Cross shelter when Houston housed victims of Hurricane Katrina. These are different kinds of quilt experiences, less structured and more informal. But whether kids gather on the quilt as a fun after school activity or as a distraction from some bigger worries, the quilt seems to bring a bit of escape to all...me included.
What I have learned...
Whether on a bed, wrapped around a child in a Norman Rockwell painting, or resting on a floor with kids on top...A Quilt is a Welcoming Thing.
I have heard people say, the older the quilt, the more valuable. Since I believe a quilt's value increases with each person it comes in contact with... then I guess that must be true!
Happy New Year 2012!
This photo is not from my Quilt Group! My mom and I were having some fun with other celebrating residents on New Year's Eve, afternoon. But seeing the residents tooting horns and swaying to Auld Lang Syne, made me decide I needed a New Year's theme for my first gathering of the New Year.
In the two years that I've gathered folks at the center for our sharing group, I've only forgotten the Quilt twice. Not a good way to start the new year. I don't realize how much warmth and coziness that silly quilt adds to our group, until it's missing.
But we gathered around the table anyway, which was covered with the "New Year!" news clippings, noise makers and old photos of celebrations. An antique silk top hat sat in the center as a reminder of formal New Year's celebrations from the past.
Harriett, is always game for trying a theme related instrument, game or piece of costume. She placed this hat on her head. "I'd like to have a couple 8x10 glossies of this one, please!" She teased as I clicked the camera.
The top hat was our biggest conversation starter. Harriett placed the hat back on the table and presented a thought to the others. "I think this hat could tell us some stories. What do you think?" I told her the only thing I knew about the hat's history was that it came from my husband's family. The label inside reads, "Starr & Cannon CO, Grand Rapids, Mich." But Harriett closed her eyes a moment, then opened them with a smile. "I think the hat belonged to a milkman, who wore his white uniform every day. But on New Year's Day, he put this hat on his head and made his deliveries!"
All I can do is sigh at moments like this. When do we get the chance to look at an object and just imagine its' past?
Poems and Quizzes
This group surprises me. I can prepare and plan, but I never know which direction we will go.
A year ago the group loved the quiz questions with trivia about how many tons of trash are cleaned up in Times Square each year, or what country celebrates at midnight by eating 12 grapes!
But there was no interest in the quiz. This child's poem about the excitement of a whole new year ahead...a blank slate, drew much more attention. Although we all agreed, kids don't really care about the idea of a New Year!!
Everyone in this photo has a past filled with stories! All the memories that are ever shared, (whether the teller is 20 years old or 90 with Alzheimer's) become changed with time. It doesn't matter how accurate or true, it just matters that the face sharing the memory is glowing with warmth. I was lucky enough to witness a number of glowing faces on this day.
Catherine remembered years ago, being in Mexico on New Year's Eve and getting up in the night to see Haley's Comet. Rita remembered the formal dances and how her mother reminded her brothers to make sure she was asked to dance. Harriett remembered how the dance floor emptied when she and her brother would dance. "He was an incredible dancer...I was just a good follower." Vivian remembered a Nickelodeon at their school dances...and we were off on a juke box tangent.
We all remembered Auld Lang Syne being part of past celebrations. I laughed at never remembering the words, but I started to sing. Immediately the others joined in, with voices as soft as memory itself. I was touched. I'm sure there were blanks and wrong words thrown in, but all I could hear was a sweet blur of voices. When we finished, we all paused and sort of smiled. "Hey. That was good."
What Did I Learn?
Thinking about the New Year with the Quilt Group is not really about the New Year at all! I had thought about making a list of all our resolutions, but I quickly realized, this gathering was about reflecting a little on the past and living in the moment. Happy New Day!
Larry, the mailman was in rush on Dec 23, But we waved him down!
Here are a few folks from my Sugar Land Quilt Group, with a special note and a box of candy for Larry. What led to this encounter? A little nostalgia and brainstorming.
A Mail Theme for the Quilt Group
In early December I gathered my favorite group of seniors around the quilt covered table, then scattered old letters and postcards.
Memory is a tricky thing for these friends with Alzheimer's, but it's amazing to see how a letter opener, sealing wax, pictures of postmen and mailboxes can trigger memory!
We did a lot of laughing. I shared a box of over 100 unusual and mostly silly postcards my mother collected over the years.
Letters to Baby
We looked at some sweet letters written to children.
And letters, written by children.
We talked about all the different kinds of mailboxes, from flagged boxes at the end of the drive... to mail slots in the door.
Remembering Mailmen from the Past
Some remembered having the same mailman year after year and calling him by name. I remembered my postman teasing me as he delivered my letters which were addressed to my nickname, Loon. We talked about mail carriers dealing with weather and unleashed dogs. One resident said, every Christmas her daughter baked shortbread for the mailman.
I admitted, I rarely see my mail carrier. She delivers my mail to a collection of locked boxes around the corner. I can see her from my window, wearing a large round hat shielding from the Texas sun. I'm sure she gets frustrated when I forget to pick up my mail and she has to squeeze in a new batch.
We began to feel sorry about our neglected mail carriers.
Mail Carriers Today
The next week we worked on a letter to give to the mail carrier who comes to Silverado and the mailwoman in my neighborhood. We shared some of our good memories in the letter and thanked them for the work they did.
Letter From the Group
I typed the letters and we decorated our signatures with colorful stamps. "Just like they used to do at the post office!" one reminded me as she stamped the sheet.
On December 23, Larry seemed very surprised when he pulled up to the curbside mailbox. He climbed out of his truck and waited patiently for our small group to wheel over and greet him with our goodies. He seemed genuinely surprised and touched by our gift. He even took time to chat about his 20+ years of delivery service. Then off he went.
My Own Mail Carrier
But the biggest treat for me was on Christmas Eve. It was pouring rain in Sugar Land. I wasn't sure how I could connect with my mail carrier since holidays make her delivery so much less predictable. But when I saw her truck turn the corner, I raced in my car and pulled up beside her. Dressed in a shiny, yellow rain slicker, "Minouz" was rushing towards the set of boxes. "Merry Christmas!" I called out over the rain and running motors. "I have a little something for you! The note will explain! Thanks for all you do!" I rushed to keep her from standing any longer in the rain.
Her grin was an incredible surprise...like a child on Christmas! She thanked me and we hollered "Merry Christmas!" to each other as I dove back in the car.
Later, Christmas Eve afternoon, I stopped back at my box to pick up the mail. There were two envelopes from Minouz in my box. One for my family and one for the Silverado Quilt Group. How did she find time? She acknowledged how the institution is changing, but that she was touched to know our reflection of the past helped us appreciate the present. I was stunned to realize that she had cared about what we did and had taken the time to thank us! And she had even stamped the envelopes before slipping them into my box!
What I Learned:
I often ponder the simpler times, but my Quilt Group friends encouraged me to do more than talk. By taking a step to encounter those folks who deliver our mail, we found out that even today, you can still have Norman Rockwell moments. Surprising Minouz in the rain and having Larry happily pose for a photo, will probably be my fondest memory of Christmas 2011. Simple as that.
Two Weeks Later
I am adding this photo, taken 2 weeks later...on a sunny day! Minouz was thrilled to hear how the Quilt Group responded to her letter. She showed me a photo of her family and she talked about her work. "I work 6 days a week, but love my job!" I think you can tell! We are friends now.
For 20+ years children have called it the Magic Quilt. They've danced and pretended all over these colorful squares. I've dragged it to schools, shelters and studios where children have climbed on top to hear Magic Quilt Stories and to act them out.