Material Girl

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I was talking with a friend two Fridays ago about some of the ideas about ‘stuff’ that have been buzzing round my head for the last little while. She has been reading a book I probably would like, The Sacred Year, by Michael Yankoski, and quoted a line that I just loved. To be anti-consumerist, you have to be a materialist. Isn’t that profound? Valuing stuff means, well, valuing stuff! For her, this answered the creeping doubts she had had about the worth of her ongoing efforts to keep a beautiful outdoor dining table safe from the sun and rain. The shine and lift of wood grain cared for is a beautiful thing. Not to throw away something that becomes difficult to care is no less beautiful.

That is my very roundabout introduction to my little ‘material girl’. There is a second hand shop up the road that had a stash of beautiful cotton and linen doilies, table runners and napkins all cotton and linen, hand embroidered or lace edged. I came home with a little treasure trove of them. I barely managed to wait for them to dry before beginning this little doll. As you can see I have guessed and sketched a pattern – so I hope that she works out! So far she is very sweet, with her little butternut squash shaped body and tiny embroidered tummy tattoo. I am not sure why exactly a doll. Perhaps she speaks to my love of the material world (no pun intended!). Perhaps she is a creative, ‘making’ style response to my learning and churning over the ideas of the sacredness of stuff and our embodied lives. Or maybe she is just a pretty distraction from my homework. Maybe, but I would like to think there is more substance to her than that!

Going back and starting with Joy

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Some of my recent posts have been good to articulate (see Waiting, Walking and Working 1 & 2, and Ambivalent Consumer), but they took precedence over that which should have come before. They are desperate and true and difficult and so need tempering. Sometimes they end in a good place, but, perhaps, with a better beginning, the journey home may not be so hard. I want to return to a framework of joy so that I can work out the issues of embodiment, eating and clothing in a good place, in the right frame. In God’s story of good Creation and full Redemption. In Christ.

In his book, For the Life of the World, Schmemann insists that “from it’s very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy” (24). In the night, in our fragile, expectant state Luke calls out voicing a strong truth, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). It needs to be my theme verse! Maybe it needs to be yours too! At the other end of his biography of Jesus we see His disciples, beginning to grasp the meaning of that good news “worship[ing] Him and return[ing] to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:52).

I think that Schmemann is right. It seems imperative we “recover the meaning of this great joy. We must if possible partake of it, before we discuss anything else – programs and missions, projects and techniques” (24-25). In other words, before we ‘do’ our praxis (or even try and figure out what our practical-lived-out-Christian life might be), we need to know, get, do joy. Maybe it will involve something like the Sons of Korah call us to in Psalm 46:10-11. “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress”. The Lord is indeed with us, John affirms, He came and dwelt with us (1:14), loving us before we loved Him (1 John 4:10).

I suspect my natural tendency is always going to be to skip joy and get to the to-do list. I was so relieved to be told this morning reading Schmemann that I was getting it wrong, putting the cart before the horse, so to speak! The cart goes behind the horse because left in front it will not get anywhere and, by extension, will end up no good to anyone. I need the joy that comes from operating out of a right understanding of reality. That there is One who knows all, made all and loves all that He has made. That I am known and loved by Him, the One who brings real fullness of Life. That He is working good and His plans for cosmic wholeness will come to pass.

The list comes later. It is good and beautiful in its time, but only because these illuminating truths come first and inform it.

So, joy first. Even perhaps, little joys that remind me how to do Big Joy. Flowers that “unsettle the room” (thanks Kirk Patston) bringing grace and beauty. Making things. Talking to friends. All these things are deeply sacred, gifts from the Good Giver. Turning to thank Him for them a chance to be caught up into His Truth again, “the only possible joy on earth” (24), as Schmemann says.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:4-8)

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963.

Ambivalent Consumer

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Sometimes I feel it when I am talking with a sensitive friend, sometimes when I am having a fragile moment myself. The uneasy recognition that each one of us, as complex physical, emotional and spiritual beings, exists in time and space. That by nature of our existence we use up time (as well as other resources) and take up space. In one of my favourite musicals, Sussical, the Who’s from Whoville sing out “We are here, we are here, we are here” to let the creatures in the large world know that they are real. For some of us the tension between this necessary cry of existence and deep reticence in acknowledging our very stuff-ness (and therefore stuff-dependance) can begin to break us.

There is a reconciliation I find myself fighting for on several fronts.

In moments of fear and mis-placed disgust, I long to be smaller, to take up less space, to find more room in my clothes. In corresponding moments of dogged self-talk I begin my schpeil; my body houses my bones, muscles and organs – growth and maintenance is heavily dependant on my genetic code. Isolated, no particular section of me is wildly photogenic or smooth or blemish free. But together, I am a human being, a creature, a body-and-soul matrix with real biological systems that process real organic molecules, animated by solar energy and the very breath of God. Discussions about fasting aside, regular food is necessary for my ongoing survival. Fats, carbohydrates and proteins – all necessary to keep me enlivened, alive. Sometimes I do wish that the whole could be smaller, that there was less of me, that I took up less room. I know that there is much that could be said on the topic. But, in truth, I do not want to be a small person or live a small life. All that remains is to live out of the body I’ve been given; thankful and ready to use it for joy.

Not only do I take up space myself (more than I would like when pressed for the uncomfortable truth), but my stuff does too. My very physicality (yours too) demands food (fairly regularly, ask my husband just how civilised I can be prior to dinner), water, air, clothes, some place safe to rest in, to live in, tools to do my work, toys to share in play. The list goes on. For most of us, where these things can be enhanced with beauty, they seem to answer our needs even more truly. The somewhat obvious and, at times disconcerting reality, is that providing for these very real and tangible cries requires considerable time and money.

In a weak moment we despair at the grocery bill, regret the rent, mourn the price of a new skirt – no matter how thoughtfully the shopping list was put together, how economically our decisions about where to live were made or how careful the purchase of an attractive, up-cycled charity-shop outfit for work was. In this frame of mind, justifying the occasional ‘this-is-beautiful-and-I-really-love-it-purchase’ can be even more difficult. Add to these daily reminders of your reliance on stuff, physical things, the double ups that come from moving to a new place – having left old things behind because moving ‘stuff’ costs. Packing stuff in and out of moving boxes and suitcases has become a recent but reoccurring theme of my life. While previously my stable geography meant that my collection of stuff moved only small distances and made itself less known, now no longer.  As the distances became longer and the cost higher, moving stuff became a more difficult issue for me. Deciding what to take and what to leave when moving away is difficult enough without adding the now-near-existential-regret-come-fear of mine – if I leave it behind I’ll need to buy a new one when I get there!

This summer ‘stuff’ weighed me down; an overseas move, study of Creation care and environmental brokeness followed with further international travel meant (a lot of) real luggage toting. It also meant grappling with my unwieldy emotional baggage. I do not in anyway find myself facing Fall all the ends tied up neat and tidy, but I have had to try and lay the issue down for a spell. It was getting too heavy for me.

We took this course together, Asher and I, in the summer. A course about ‘stuff’. Natural ‘stuff’ and human-made ‘stuff’. Creation in its outstanding diversity and the complex labyrinth of human production, technology and objects. We wondered how to negotiate the two realms, we read scripture and other wise writers. We worried about human failings in ecology. We rowed boats and explored marine environments. We sang and prayed together. We shared bread and wine and remembered the One who’s body was broken because of our destruction. And I think that is where the answers begin.

Our God made and loves this physical world. He made the ‘stuff’! The epitome of a good designer, He made the world both useful and beautiful. He made us as part of His creation to love and appreciate it, to use and work within it, and, as Schmeman would say, to offer it back to Him in praise and worship. God is not only just okay with a real, physical creation, He wanted it that way. He even sent His Son to become part of it. Incredible. God made flesh, bone, body. He knows what it feels to live in skin. His death and (bodily) resurrection answers so many questions, articulated and otherwise, but for my purposes here today, it at least says that our messy, uncomfortable, physical lives, our stuff, our home planet, all matter to Him deeply. He took on the great joy and incredible brokenness of life under the sun – and then some – because He loves His creation. His double affirmation of the ‘stuff’ of this world comes in the way He asks us to remember why He came, bread and wine are to be our mnemonics. We remember God dwelling among us as we eat a meal, a meal that speaks of sacrifice, life given for life and welcome.  Grapes, yeast, wheat, water. The very ‘stuff of life’ tells us the story of heaven meeting earth and welcoming her home, over and over, as often as we drink it.

This is not a full discussion of the spiritual importance of ‘stuff’, but for me, weary from the compromise of trying to do right within a broken system, arms heavy from carrying my ‘stuff’, I’m glad to sit down at the table. Eyes forced to the Head, praise and thankfulness the only right response to the Giver of all good gifts. Will you sit by me?

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:4-8

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963.

Stitching soul to body

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So my quilt is finally finished. It is even on the bed (never mind that the water washable quilting maker hasn’t quite been washed out yet, that will come, one day, hopefully before the sun disappears with the imminent arrival of Fall!). These past few weeks have seen me hunting and gathering layers of textiles for our bed to make a new little nest here. The dappled crew is topped off with this pieced quilt, itself a mixed bag of carefully chosen scraps. I love them all. The layers. The meanings. The way they are precious because I put them together.

In one of my Food Studies readings last year I came across Meredith Abarca’s ‘Kitchen Talk’ chapter in Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working-Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. I just loved the following passage;

“Speaking about Puerto Rico’s history, Levins Morales says, ‘Let’s get one thing straight. Puerto Rico was a woman’s country … we were never still, our hands were always busy. Making soup. Making candles. Holding children. Making bedding. Sewing clothing. Our stitches held sleeve to dress and soul to body. We stitched our families through the dead season of the cane, stitched them through lean times of bread and coffee. The seams we made kept us from freezing in the winters of New York and put beans on the table in the years of soup kitchens’. In Levins Morales’s description, women speak with their hands and a needle”  

These women are speaking to a time and a place but there is something universally true there. Something that I resonated with. I want to stitch souls to bodies, to speak with my hands and a needle just as powerfully as with my mouth.

Bibliography
Abarca, Meredith E. “Kitchen Talk,” in Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working-Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008, 109–34.Welcome to EditPad.org – your online plain text editor. Enter or paste your text here. To download and save it, click on the button below.

Quilt-Maker

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I am almost, almost finished a quilt that I have been working on for the last few years. I began mostly to keep my hands busy while I listened to university lectures and tutorials online. I collected up a number of used business shirts from opportunity shops in different blues and cut squares till I had enough to cover a bed for two. As I snipped and stitched life continued; lectures and lessons passed, our wedding came and went. We moved. We moved again. Slowly it took shape and, motivated by a third move, I am trying to get it finished. Pieced together as we were, it seems right that it comes with us to our new country as a piece of our history, our story. We may just need to cuddle up in something familiar and warm when we are far away.

My stitching reminded me of the Luci Shaw poem called Quilt-maker based on “a prairie woman in [who made quilts] ‘… warm to keep my family from freezing; … [and] beautiful to keep my heart from breaking’” (Shaw 2002, 88). Warmth and beauty, woven, stitched together. Mine is simple, mundane even, but carefully and lovingly put together, kind of like a family.

Quilt-Maker

To keep a husband and five children warm,
she quilts them covers thick as drifts against
the door. Through every fleshy square white threads
needle their almost invisible tracks; her hours
count each small suture that hold together
the raw-cut, uncolored edges of her life.

She pieces each one beautiful and summer bright
to thaw her frozen soul. Under her fingers
the scraps grow to green birds and purple
improbalble leaves; deeper than calico, her mid-winter
mind bursts into flowers. She watches them unfold
between the double stars, the wedding rings.

Shaw, Luci. 2002. “Beauty and the Creative Impulse”. In The Christian Imagination, edited by Leland Ryken. Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw Books.

Shaw, Luci. 1990. Polishing the Petoskey Stone. Shaw Books, 33.