Friday, October 20, 2006

The Quilters of Gee's Bend

Yesterday, October 19th, was my 48th birthday. I woke feeling grateful. I did not expect it to turn out this way, my life; I thought I'd have kids, I thought, I don't know what I thought.

But I'm healthy, in body and spirit, healthier in spirit than I ever was in my thirties, when chronic depression was like having lead weights tied to my ankles. I'm grateful to the scientists who developed anti-depressants for taking the time to understand the delicate workings of the human brain and body. I'm grateful to Kathleen desMaisons for researching the connections between diet and mood. I'm grateful to my doctor for getting me on medication. And I'm grateful to my friends who've stuck by me through painful struggles, and now get to enjoy me being myself again.

I'm grateful to anyone who has the humility to be compassionate without judgement when it comes to depression, mental illness, and healing. No one who hasn't spent more than three decades constantly grappling with exhaustion, low self-esteem, physical and emotional overwhelm, and the constant chatter of vicious self-attacking voices could understand what it means to be finally free of those demons. I spent the summer of 2005 restoring my health through medication, diet, and exercise, and although my energy and mood have had some ups and downs since then, I've maintained a higher level of mental health than ever before in my life--and that has been the greatest gift of all.

So at forty-eight I don't feel scared or desperate at my advancing years. I do feel that I missed out on some things. In some ways I am in my late forties and in other ways I am a year and a half old, because I have been through a death and a rebirth. What if I'd had the right medication when I was married? Or just after I got divorced? Could I have risked children then? Could I have gotten to this serenity any sooner, by any less circuitous route? I don't know. All I know is that peace and happiness and HEALTH are worth everything to me now. I don't take them for granted. Just to be able to get out of bed, go to work, and enjoy it, is a great blessing. Everything else is frosting.

To celebrate my birthday, G. and I went to the deYoung Art Musueum in San Francisco to see an exhibit of quilts from Gee's Bend, Alabama. Gee's Bend is an isolated poor hamlet, famous for the ingenuity and sense of color and composition of its quilters. It has always been populated by dirt-poor tenant farmers, descendants of saves, who worked dawn to dusk in the fields. The women quilted at night to keep their children warm. They used every scrap and bit and piece of fabric they could get their hands on: faded work shirts, stained overalls, fertilizer sacks, and completely worn-out dresses... You could still see scorch marks from the iron on some of the pieces of fabric. The color and compositions were bold and striking--sometimes the quilter only had two of three kinds of fabric to work with, but she utilized those creative limitations to make something extraordinarily beautiful within the boundaries of the form.

There was a video which accompanied the quilts where some of the women were interviewed. Old African American women with sun on their faces, their skin so soft and beautiful despite the hard lives they had led. The video showed them singing together as they quilted, spirituals and hymns. It reminded me of the great joy Ellen and Beth and I get from singing together; we love to sing everything, Motown, Janis Joplin, the soundtrack from various musicals, but nothing lifts us as much as sacred music. It is a bonding and a binding that can lift us up on angel's wings.

One of the women in the video talked about how little they had and how poor they were, coming up. She was one of 16 children. Her mother got them all clean and to church every Sunday, but they were always barefoot, "stump-bare" she said. There wasn't a single shoe in the whole household. "But it seemed like we were happier then than most folks is nowadays," she remarked.

G. poked me in the ribs. "It was a better country back then," he whispered. This is one of his favorite themes. In the next scene, the woman was talking about the bad old days, pre-Civil Rights era, when lynchings were common and the landowners could cheat them with impunity. Voter registration was a bloody violent struggle in Gee's Bend. Martin Luther King, Jr's hearse was pulled through the streets by a mule from Gee's Bend. I poked him back.

"All right, all right," he acknowledged.

It was wonderful going to the exhibit with G. because when he was growing up he spent summers out in the country with his grandparents in small poor Southern towns not unlike Gee's Bend. He remembers being bitten half to death by mosquitos; deadly boredom, long church services every night, no T.V., and quilts. His grandmother quilted, and he was put to bed wrapped in old quilts like the ones hanging on the walls in the museum, only no one thought of them as art back then. Still, he said, as a child he delighted in letting his eye travel from one piece of fabric to another. "Each piece would kind of take you somewhere," he said. "I can't really explain it."

Maybe it was the stifling boredom and lack of stimulation that made the colors and designs on the quilt pieces so powerful for him. Maybe it was the darkness and heaviness of so many years of depression that makes my current state of health so miraculous to me. Who knows?

I went home and started searching through old clothes. I'm going to make a quilt. I'm not going to the fabric store to buy any ready made pieces. I'm going to cut up an old pair of ripped silk shorts that I bought at the flea market for a dollar and slept in for years. I'm going to cut up a few stained old T-shirts that aren't good enough to give away. I want to make a quilt entirely out of found materials. My housemate Cynthia has a sewing machine, and I'll machine-sew the top, but hand-quilt the whole thing. I used to have a quilting hoops somewhere...

I rushed home from the museum, went to the kitchen, and threw a quick dinner together for about ten friends. Chicken, salad, rice, and Indonesian squash soup. Some stir-fried tofu for the vegetarians. Ruth and her girlfriend Michelle came, and Beth and Ellen and Marci, and Cynthia and Steven, and Elizabeth and Jonathan. (G had to work at his night job.) My housemates Leyra and Cynthia joined us.

After dinner we sat around the living room and I assigned parts for my new play, Garlic; a metaphor. I needed to hear it out loud before I went on to a second draft. The reading was great! I could hear the places where the language popped, and the other places where it lagged. Unlike Saying Kaddish, which had strong focal points in the form of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and family relationships, this play was written more experimentally. It's really just about poetry and relationships, and the way ordinary life needs to be suffused by art in order to be bearable. How creativity is what makes life worth living, and without it we sink into despair. And how accessible and down to earth that creativity is, once we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear it.

Marci played jamie, the hairdresser/poet; Steven played Sam, her husband, Michelle played Vivian, Ellen was Joe, and Leyra played Cesar with an authentic Guatemalan accent. Cynthia read the stage directions. I learned a lot from the reading, and even more from the questions and comments afterwards. It was a pleasure to begin to feel the characters come alive, to see people laugh and lean forward in their seats when Jamie kissed Vivian for the first time, to hear the gasps of surprise, or even to feel the flat places.

It was important to me not to feel like I was carrying the piece all alone; I wanted to share what I had so far with the others, so that I could enter the revision process fortified by their voices and encouragement. Writing can be lonely as well as pwerful, God knows. The women of Gee's Bend pieced their unique tops each by herself, in her own house, usually working long into the night after the chores were done and children put to bed. Then, when it was time to quilt the thing, they gathered together around the frame and helped each other. I pieced my first draft alone--this was in its own way, a little quilting bee. My friends' voices and intelligence and love were the warp and the woof. Now I've got to gather more scraps up for another go-round.


Theresa Williams said...

Why not document the quilt's creation and post photos on the blog? That would be awesome. Alison, I am so glad you feel healthy and whole again. May you continue to enjoy your wonderful life.

Alison said...

That's a great idea, Theresa! I don't have a digital camera, but G. does--once I get into it, I'll have him take pictures. For now, my dining room table is just covered with fabric...