for Carol M.
Sitting around the campfire on my brother’s farm with friends late one night last summer, I stood up to shake out a stiff knee when I lost my balance and stumbled backwards, falling and catching my hand in the metal spring of a folding chair that snapped shut like a vise onto my knuckles. It was the very definition of a ‘freak accident.’
Picture it: a woman of a certain age splayed flat on the grass on a moonless night helplessly clamped to a metal chair, the Milky Way frothy in the sky above and a dozen people surrounding her in shock, not knowing what in the world had just happened.
Nor did I; I knew only excruciating pain, the way a bear caught in a steel trap must feel. I had all but stopped breathing. Then, coming from I know not where, I heard in my head clear instructions about what to do next:
“Use it! Use your pain!” was what I heard. “Look for your calm core on the other side of the pain. Breathe, focus on the hurt and notice your emotions – fear, denial, embarrassment.” It told me to welcome any help offered, and to maintain a sense of humor at my predicament – my hand caught in a chair?
“You are showing the others, especially the young ones, how to respond to pain when the going gets rough.“
At that, my horrible pain then morphed into interesting pain – and I found I could indeed handle it. My buddies around the campfire went right into action. I got to observe my daughter as the remarkable healer she is and felt the power of a community coming together to support one of their own. My new niece, I recall, had the job of distracting me by telling a funny story about when her dog got lost, keeping us all in stitches, and my job was to look at her and not my hand, and to keep breathing as calmly as I could.
Once the ambulance arrived from town, it took three strong guys with crowbars to unhitch the spring that clamped me down to that darn chair! My hand looked awful, the back skin having been scraped off down to tendon and bone, but I’d been caught across my knuckles where the hand is fleshy so no fingers were broken, no tendons snapped. I was lucky, and to everyone’s amazement, still calm even though it hurt like hell!
Later, sewn up in the Emergency Room of the hospital in town and sent back to the farm bruised but not broken, I realized that I had not, for one moment, been left alone with my pain. My daughter never left my side. The others came in relays, sat with us, supplied us with snacks and told us how fabulous we were!
We were. And could be again, I now know. We can make it through these hard times by staying calm, breathing and doing what needs to be done – always with a little help from our friends.
The most painful part happened at the airport a few days later.
“Unwrap the bandage,” I was told curtly by the young female security agent.
My hand had been skillfully wrapped to protect it from the inevitable bumps and stresses it would receive getting on and off an airplane. There was no way I could neatly unwrap those layers of gauze and cotton and get them back on again with one hand. I assumed she was joking, but she meant it; I had to take the bloody thing off so this young woman could personally see my bruises and stitched flesh and be sure I was not hiding a weapon!
“Eeuw gross!” she exclaimed at the sight, letting me through to trail bloody gauze behind me and look for a quiet corner in the Concourse to re-wrap my hand, where I cried – for her more than for myself – and for our culture that, in the name of ‘security’ demands heartlessness from our own young people.
At last, my accident had brought me to tears.
Now, less than a year later, it is only in my heart you might find evidence of a scar.
We are all carrying scars, deep ones: for the children languishing in detention centers at the ‘border’; for our fellow citizens so scared they would vote a madman into high office; for the forests still being destroyed for profit and for the icecaps melting into polluted oceans; for the droughts and the floods, the hungry and the homeless of every race, the children, the frightened children.
We are scarred – and scared – every last one of us whether we realize it or not.
I am watching how my good friend Carol is handling her own wounds now, after she and her husband lost their home in one of the big fires in Northern California. They got out with their lives, but little else.
They had barely caught their breaths after the fire when one of their adult children lost his job, followed by a grandchild getting racked up in a car accident! Her shock level went way over the top and her therapist alerted the authorities, fearful she might kill herself! Carol, who is not a large woman, was dragged off to the local Psychiatric ward, she told me later, by six policemen, two firemen, two security guards and two ambulance drivers, who threatened to tie her down if she didn’t stop fighting them! When she told me the story later, we laughed until we were weak. The fact is that she is one of the sanest, most grounded women I know.
So, when we stop shaking our heads in wonder, we’ve been asking ourselves: What do you do when so much has been taken away that you are left with almost nothing except life itself?
Her response, in her feisty way is, “If life has given me scraps, well then I suppose I’m just going to have to make a quilt!”
Me too! So we’re going to do it together. Fortunately, we are both aficionados of old fabric – people like us are often known as “quilting maniacs” – so we know a lot about unsorted piles of scraps.
Her scraps may be gone, but I’ve got enough for both of us on shelves and in boxes, collected over decades. Anyhow, she loves haunting thrift stores, finding old embroidery on worn-out pillowcases, velvet ribbons, silk sashes, old batiks. So our collaboration is underway!
One day soon we’ll get together, kneel on my livingroom floor and lay out our stashes by color. As we place golds next to purples and decide if we want patchwork, log cabin squares or Texas stars, I’ll ask about the family, and she’ll tell me about the latest ‘catastrophe.’ And I will listen, quietly placing pink satin next to a vivid black-and-white check while she talks. Inevitably, we’ll get to our marriages and then politics, maybe crying together about the two children who have already died in detention at the border. Sorting through scraps of calico and bits of raw silk, we’ll take bets on the country waking up quickly enough to make a difference before Plump finally self-destructs, and then lay out a log-cabin square with a centerpiece of cherry-red satin.
I’ll go to the sewing machine to sew it up while she cuts and irons pieces for the next square.
We’ll no doubt wonder together about next year’s fire season, about whether the Democrats will listen to all the smart young women of color taking the places of the old-guard guys, about how to start changing the money system that’s got it all backwards.
“I love how this red satin looks in the center,” one of us will say.
“What about this off-white lace for the border?” the other will offer. When the square is sewn up and ironed out flat, we will sit back, admiring the new square in quiet for awhile. Then we’ll embrace in a deep long hug.
“Ready for some tea?” I’ll suggest.
“Sure,” she’ll murmur, sighing from deep down. Then I’ll get up and put the kettle on.
There’s an old, old adage that goes like this:
If life hands you scraps, have another ounce of strength, go about your business, know who your friends are…
…and make a quilt.