In 2015 or was it 2016(?) things were in flux. I was re-evaluating what I was doing, where I was headed, what I wanted… There were a number of things going on that led to this, but it was one of those moments that didn’t seem particularly extraordinary or even interesting, but in hindsight I see that it was a pivotal moment. A moment when I re-found hand stitching.
My mother taught me to embroider with crewel and a hoop at an early age. This is the Christmas creche we made together. It was while making one of those sheep that I came to truly appreciate the diversity and beauty of the simple French Knot done hundreds of times.
Christmas Creche embroidered with my mother
Since then I have gone down many paths, but the hand stitching path is perhaps the most surprising, to me. While at Parsons School of Design I would do anything I could to avoid hand stitching. And then I discovered draping and for a time it was my new love. Draping is a whole art in and of itself. Cutting fabric on the bias and then draping it onto a form and manipulating it so the fabric falls in specific ways was something I loved, but it was also time consuming and I was young and impatient and so my love for draping was set aside.
Funnily enough when I moved to Los Angeles straight out of high school and before I went to Parsons my first job was in a tailor’s shop in Beverly Hills. My favorite thing to do was to sit in the back room with the master tailor, an Armenian man who tried to teach me the fine art of tailoring. Hand stitching hemlines and buttonholes was something I never quite mastered during my time there, but I loved it never-the-less.
Hand stitching can be slow and arduous and very, very time consuming, and it can also be meditative, serene, calming and restorative, depending on one’s perspective. These days I find hand stitching to be all of the latter and none of the former.
A detail of my most recent work hand stitching on Pat Pauly hand dyed linen using Stef Francis threads, Painter’s Threads, House Of Embroidery Threads, Mulberry Bark from Stef Francis, Sari Cording from Stef Francis and wool roving.
When I began hand stitching again I followed other people’s patterns and instructions and while that was interesting and I learned a great deal, it wasn’t completely fulfilling. I have always gone off script and the farther I go, the happier I am. So when I began doing what I call “Improvisational Stitching” I knew I’d fallen into something important. Not only was I creating original pieces that didn’t look like other things I was seeing out in the hand stitching world, but it was an expression of my moods, my thoughts, the things that were going on in my life. Hand stitching is the way I express myself.
A few things I’ve learned through hand stitching, which can be applied to the piece I’m working on, but also to life:
Any emotion is fair game and can be expressed through stitching.
Any emotion is okay and when expressed through stitching creates a vibrant, interesting piece.
Impatience is a frame of mind and a choice.
When I don’t know what to do, stand back, take a photo and get a new perspective on the situation.
Compare and despair.
Everything has its own timeline.
Divas can be fun, but they also can silence everyone else.
Diversity makes anything and everything better.
Rules are helpful, until they’re not, in which case, break them or ignore them.
There are moments that feel impossible and others that fly by unnoticed. Mostly I’m exhausted almost constantly, as though a perpetual scrim has enveloped me, making everything feel heavier, cloudier, more difficult to sort through. It’s not terrible, just different. This is grief, I’m told.
This morning is one of those heavier moments. Maybe it’s because it’s Tuesday, and Tuesday and Thursday mornings are when I post something on this blog. Often I would refer to a video or story my mother had sent me that made me smile and I’d post it here for all of you to enjoy. But there will not be any more videos or stories from my mother and as much as I accept that, I still feel a tightness in my throat, a constriction in my chest, an overwhelming sadness. I remind myself that she lived a long, often beautiful sometimes difficult, complicated life. A life with long tendrils that reached so many. This is grief, I’m told.
When my mother died I was in Africa. At Stanley’s camp in the bush in Botswana, to be exact.
We had spotty wi-fi, but it was enough to be able to communicate with my siblings. It was enough to make me feel connected in our grief.
But then we flew to another camp, deeper in the bush, which had no wi-fi at all. I wasn’t able to reach anyone, and so other than my husband, I was alone with my grief. It was a tough few days, and yet those days were also filled with the excitement that can only come from seeing a leopard bounding up a tree, crouching in front of a bush and then leaping so fast the naked eye can barely keep up, to kill a squirrel. Or the joy and amazement of coming upon a pride of lion: two males, several females and half a dozen cubs, before hurrying off to make one of a half dozen flights before eventually arriving back home in New York City.
Upon our arrival home (it took us almost 40 hours) I had to deal with an array of technological problems, one of which was my computer that had crashed on me the third day of our trip. I am just now beginning to post videos of our African Adventure, with a new video coming out every day for the foreseeable future. Making these videos, in many ways, has been a life saver. It’s somewhat methodical work that is also wonderful as I am seeing all the footage I took of our amazing trip. Traveling is always a joyful experience for me. I love to travel, just as both my parents did. My mother’s death has only made me more intent on traveling as much as I can, while I still can.
As my mother lay dying I called every evening and my sister held the phone to my mother’s ear so that I could tell her about seeing a blackback gorilla charging, and the baboons that were intent on sneaking a treat from the expansive breakfast buffet, and the hippo that came close to our boat in Zambia and how the guide told us his open mouth was the first warning sign and when asked what the second warning sign was, he said a hippo with open mouth running towards us, which was exactly what he was doing!
My days were filled with excitement, even elation as well as overwhelming sadness. It was a lesson in holding two seemingly opposing things in either hand and having both be true.
It’s impossible not to contemplate the genocide that ravaged this country, when more than one million people were massacred in 100 days. Think about that. Resulting in a collective trauma that is still felt by so many to this day. It was a brutal time demonstrating the worst aspects of colonialism and the racism that came hand in hand, a government that manipulated its people into seeing each other as enemies, and a world that refused to acknowledge the warnings and reports from so many.
Rwanda. (If you’d like to watch the youtube video I made covering the first few days of our trip, you can do so below.)
A fertile land where the rains allow crops to flourish, yet reveals the bones from those who were systematically and viscously slaughtered and then dumped into shallow graves. So many over the age of 30 have horrifying stories to tell.
And yet to travel in Rwanda today is to be greeted by waving children yelling “hello!” and “welcome!” teenagers eager to practice their English, and adults who do not show, at least not outwardly, any malice towards the tourists coming from countries that turned their backs on them, and allowed the killings to continue.
In fact, the country teaches the importance of kindness, reconciliation, forgiveness and how everyone prospers as a result. There are large posters and billboards everywhere encouraging exactly this.
And while coffee and tea are the country’s largest export, it’s the chance to catch a glimpse of the gorillas, who live mainly in a mountainous region among volcanoes shrouded by wisps of clouds, that draw many of the tourists.
Gorilla conservation, transforming poachers into porters, convincing the local population that their lives can and will improve if they do not encroach upon the gorilla population, but instead protect them, has changed lives.
Compassion. Kindness. Caring for others. Being a good person.
“We are gathered here to remember those who lost their lives in the Genocide and comfort those who survived.
“As we pay tribute to the victims, both the living and those who have passed, we also salute the unbreakable Rwandan spirit, to which we owe the survival and renewal of our country.
“To our parents, children, brothers, and sisters who survived — to Rwandans who defied the call to genocide and to those who give voice to their remorse — it is you who bear the burden of our history.
“We have pursued justice and reconciliation as best we could. But it does not restore what we lost.
“Time and again these past twenty years, Rwandans have given of themselves. You have stood before the community to bear witness and listened to others do the same. You have taken responsibility and you have forgiven.
“Your sacrifices are a gift to the nation. They are the seed from which the new Rwanda grows. Thank you for allowing your humanity and patriotism to prevail over your grief and loss.”
Paul Kagame: President of Rwanda at the 20th Commemoration of Genocide Against the Tutsi
Off we go on our grand adventure to Africa tomorrow!
Here is a little recap of the last 24 hours…
Yesterday: Wake up to find we have been sent a notification from the airlines that our flight has been cancelled. Wait, what?!???
My heart skips a beat, a precursor to the flood of panic that immediately follows. Time for some deep breathing. Logic kicks in. We will get another flight out, it’s going to be fine. I quickly send off emails to the travel agency and leave voice messages for them as well, just in case they don’t get the email, even though it’s 6am and they’re on Central time and won’t be open for at least four hours, you can never be too careful or thorough.
I practiced my french – j’ai pratiqué mon français. Still feeling some trepidation and panic, but attempting to speak another language helps. Meanwhile Richard has been experiencing heart palpitations and has an appointment with the doctor to make sure he’s in tiptop shape for our trip. I remind him that it’s important that he wear his hiking boots, since they’re new, at least once before our trip, to ensure he doesn’t get blisters while we are away. He nods distractedly.
The travel agency gets back to me, we laugh about traveling and how anything that can go awry, often does, but it won’t be a problem, she’s got this and will call me back when she’s figured out our new airline and flight.
I decide this is a good time to get some stitching done to calm my frayed nerves.
Several hours pass and I get the news that we are rebooked on a different airline departing out of a different airport, but we will make our connecting flight and all is well. Knowing that we are all set to go as originally planned I go out to get my Covid test as required by the airline and Africa.
I throw on an old pair of sandals and walk briskly over to the CityMD nearest us only to be told that they’re swamped and test results will take 3-5 days. Yikes! They suggest a different place that is about a half a mile away. A true New Yorker, I walk over to this new place, which is actually a folding table set up on the sidewalk on 14th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. It feels as though I have pebbles in my sandals, which I cannot find or get rid of. Never mind, there’s no line and so I fill out the various online forms to register and they assure me test results will be delivered within 24 hours. Perfect! “Go easy on me,” I plead to the young man, who I swear couldn’t be older than 22. He assures me that he’s known for his gentle touch and before I know it the deep nasal swab has been deftly done and is over. “That’s it?!” I exclaim. “Yup, you’re good to go,” he says.
I have a brief moment when I consider whether it would be worth purchasing another airline ticket for this young man so that we can bring him with us and have him perform the 9-10 Covid tests we will have to get throughout our trip. I voice this thought in a joking tone. He laughs and says something like, “I wish.”
He has no idea how serious I am…
The pebbles in my sandals are now really quite painful and I’m having a difficult time walking. I stop at a random pharmacy, purchase some bandaids only to realize that there are no pebbles; I’ve developed large quarter-sized blisters on the bottoms of both feet. How does that even happen?
I hobble home grateful that I can stay put and not go anywhere else.
Upon arrival back home I am confronted with more forms that need to be filled out no more than 48 hours before leaving. I can feel my anxiety rising. Oh and weren’t we supposed to start taking our malaria tablets? Oh no, that can wait until Friday.
New email comes in from the travel agency reminding me to print out our Rwanda visas. Wait, what?Rwanda visas???? I did that, didn’t I? I’m sure I did, but never received confirmation that our applications were approved. I search for and eventually find the email saying that our visa applications are “pending.” I forward all of this to the travel agency with the subject line: HELP!
I have a Zoom call with my “Ask Me Anything” Patrons, which is really more like a party, very boisterous and lots of fun. I show off my latest stitching project and we discuss stitching, techniques, different ways of doing things, piecing backgrounds, and other things, including my next two workshops coming up end of September. The Zoom party is lots of fun and distracts me momentarily from all that’s going on travel-wise.
The Zoom party ends and I see another email from the travel agency. I call them instead of emailing back. She’s taking care of the whole visa debacle and assures me it will all get sorted out. I check my credit card and see that the money has been removed for our travel visas. She tells me there’s one more form to be filled out, but she’s having her assistant do it because while I was on the Zoom call she spoke to my husband who, it turns out, is having heart palpitations due to stress and she doesn’t want him to get any more stressed out.
Richard tells me he loves his new hiking boots, wore them all day and guess what? Not a single blister. I admit that I wore sandals that I’ve never had issues with and now can barely walk.
We laugh. Because seriously, what else are you going to do? We haven’t even left yet and this trip is feeling epic!
Today: I wake to see that my Covid test has been emailed back to me and I’m negative, thankfully.
After I finish writing this post I am double checking that all our various documents are printed out multiple times. I swear we have added at least a pound to our baggage weight with all the documents. We are only allowed a small duffel bag and cannot bring more than 33 pounds including carry-on each. I will be weighing my various tech equipment & computer, finish packing and will try to remember to breath.
Breathing is important. Wish us luck!
And remember in five days we will be hiking with these guys.
As it turns out the bobbin winder on my new Bernina is broken. Silly me, thinking I could wind the bobbin upside down, I didn’t realize this until it was too late, and it did us both in. Off to the shop it will go, but in the meantime, I continue to fine tune my newly organized working space. In between stitching, reorganizing and preparing for our upcoming trip, I did manage to do a livestream for my YouTube followers.
Some love the livestreams and others dislike them. Part of what’s fun, in my opinion, about livestreaming is the interactive aspect. It’s really what sets these videos apart from a recorded video. For me it’s fun to hear from all of you as I’m working. There’s an easy going banter that is often funny, there’s lots of laughter, with the added plus that I’m able to answer questions in real time, demonstrate different things as I’m working and in general have fun. However part of the livestreaming experience is that I also greet people when they say hi, sometimes get side tracked, but usually am able to stay on target, and try things I might not otherwise try because of things suggested by others.
In preparation for our trip I found the following video.
This is where we will be going. In fact, in one week from today we will be in Rwanda! Hard to believe.