How Do You Measure Time? Hint: it’s not productivity that matters
When I found out my sister’s baby was due a week after my October birthday, I knew immediately what I wanted to give my new niece for Christmas. I planned to sew a quilt using pre-cut squares my late grandmother had sent me a decade ago. These fabric pieces carried a lot of meaning as Grandma was known for making blankets and quilts for every child and adult in her family.
I had made a couple of simple blankets before but never what you could call an actual quilt. When I told my husband, Shawn, about my project he bought me a new sewing machine for my birthday along with a table designed specifically for using the machine.
I found a YouTube tutorial series that walked me through how to make my first quilt. I ordered supplies like safety pins, special rulers, and two yards of flannel backing. Grandma’s quilt squares were semi-organized and stacked in a cardboard box. I took my time sorting through the different patterns and counting the pieces available as I played with creating a pattern and color palette that would fit my niece’s sure-to-be spunky personality. I settled on a design that made me smile. Not too much pink or pastel, but a print with classic roses and mauve color blocks. After calculating the design on paper, I laid it out on my kitchen table to see its actual size. It was December 4th.
It was time to quilt everything together. Each seam between the squares called for two lines of quilting on either side. It wasn’t difficult work, but the energy required to keep the lines straight and guide the fabric through the machine made for sore muscles in my already weakened body.
However, I was determined to finish the project, so I kept pushing myself.
But then, just days before Christmas, I woke up in the middle of the night with a burning pain in my arms and shoulders, and it continued into the next day. My stomach sank as I realized what this meant. I had pushed myself too far, and my body was telling me it was time to stop.
I took calming breaths, closed my eyes, and told myself it was okay to quit. I let go of my self-imposed timeline, confident I would return to the project when I felt better.
I gift wrapped a couple of spare quilt squares as a preview of what was to come, knowing my sister would extend compassion and grace that the project wasn’t finished yet. I was grateful for her support and love.
The burning pain was just the first sign in a flurry of symptoms that hit me in the new year. My physical and mental health took priority, and most days were spent resting or consulting with doctors. On a good day if I had extra energy I wrote blog posts about vulnerability, gratitude for vaccines, advocacy, and beauty on the bad days.
The quilt sat untouched for months. Each time I saw it, part of me felt incomplete, too, and I wished I could just whip it through the sewing machine like the cheery woman from the tutorial. But another part of me knew it wasn’t time to restart the project yet. I got the sense from both my physical body and my inner wisdom that the quilt would be finished when it was meant to be done.
With the July sun streaming in the window, I was moved to pick up the quilt and see where I had left off. Summer had brought a new energy and healing, so I decided to do just one quit line for the day. It took about ten minutes and felt good. I repeated the process over the next few days taking care to listen to my body as I went. I felt the familiar urge to hurry up and finish, but this time it was easier to let it pass and focus on what I could do in the moment. I took frequent and long breaks to spend time with family and friends, reassured that since the quilt had waited this long, it could wait a little longer.
With my niece’s first birthday approaching, I had a real chance to complete the project by the end of October. I asked Shawn to help me square and trim the quilt, one of the final steps in the tutorial. I was grateful for his help, both physically since I couldn’t get down on the floor, and for his skills with rulers, squaring corners, and cutting accuracy.
The last step was to attach the edging. The color and style I purchased when I began the project didn’t look right. At the last minute I bought a different pack of pre-cut and pre-folded binding, and having little energy or time to get out, asked my mom to do the curbside pickup. She happily agreed and when she brought it over, she stayed to visit about the sewing legacy in our family (it was her mom who sent me the box of quilt squares). It was a special time of love and memories.
After clipping the edging in place while paying special attention to the corners as coached in the tutorial, it should’ve been a quick and easy zigzag stitch around the quilt. However, I ran into what seemed like every problem that could go wrong. The bobbin’s spool was too loose. The thread tension was to low then too high. Thread broke while I was sewing. The spool of fancy thread I was using didn’t seem to agree with the machine. The needle stalled on the thick corners as fabric bound up under the presser foot. As I resolved each issue, I ripped out the snake’s nest of threads that was supposed to be my zigzag stitch.
One step forward, two steps back.
That seemed to be a familiar refrain for the year regarding my health. But I knew how to handle it: set it aside to rest, go with the flow of my body, live in the present moment, and trust in the hope that I would be able to return soon.
It was clear that I would have to postpone the project again. I was disappointed, but it ended up being for the best because I watched my niece’s birthday party through a screen door due to the Covid risk of gathering with unmasked and unvaccinated people. If I’d given the quilt then it would have been less meaningful at a distance.
Over the next two months, with a spool of reliable thread from my mom’s long-standing sewing supplies, I slowly worked through all the kinks and was able to finish a durable, nice-looking zigzag stitch. The final step was to create a label. This was what I was most excited about because my new machine had an added feature which would embroider patterns and letters. I made a couple of test runs on fabric scraps, measured the square I wanted to use, and outlined a plan of what I wanted to write. I feared the machine would act up during the lettering process and ruin my last square, but the stitching went smoothly and as expected. One more set of zigzags around the label, and I was done.
I was done! I smiled and hugged the quilt in my arms.
It took me just over a year to complete the project. On the surface, in today’s production-oriented society, this might be embarrassing, but I would argue that it was the perfect timing, and here’s my evidence. Unlike last year, this Christmas, we were able to gather close together thanks to at-home covid tests and a mini-quarantine. And my niece is now at the age where she actively interacts with her world. Her developing personality shows up in her favorite toys and her big smiles, in her cuddles and her oohs and ahhs. One look at these pictures, and you know she loves the quilt.
The joy and beauty of this moment made the year of challenges, both with the quilt and my health, fade into the background.
I won’t measure 2021 through the lens of pain or despair, though there were many rough days. Instead I’ll focus on times of comfort and hope because they were always present, too.
We need to remember that things will unfold in their own time, and our obsession with production and showing results often gets in the way. It’s okay to let go of the notion of accomplishment as a measure of time. Instead, pay attention to the beauty and joy around you…
… the people you love and those who love you,
… moments of calming silence and rousing laughter,
… nostalgic smells that trigger happy memories,
… lessons you learn about authentic living and growing your wisdom,
… and glimpses of heaven on earth.