Friday, March 1, 2013

How To Thread A Needle

thoughts on turning darkness into light

Life is a tapestry. That’s what people say—the celebrations and struggles, the determination to hope and love are like stitches taken to fill a waiting length of fine fabric. And those stitches, bold or careful, bright or muted, tell the story of all those days. 

I remembered this analogy when teaching a quilting class last week. I demonstrated the needle-threading trick I learned when I was young. It is easy and I thought—foolproof:  With your dominant hand hold the needle parallel to the ground. Drape the thread over the needle and with your other hand’s thumb and forefinger grasp the thread that is touching the needle.  Squeeze the thread between your fingers tight and slide it off the needle. Holding tightly you can feel where the still-folded thread is between your fingers. Guide the needle’s eye and hold it right above where you know the folded, squeezed thread is.  Pressing between your fingers, guide the needle’s eye down over the thread. 

Your needle will thread every time. I told my class,” This technique is so dependable, you can even thread a needle with your eyes closed, or in the dark. “

The absurdity of my statement struck me: Who would thread a needle in the dark? Why would anyone have to thread a needle with eyes closed?

That question on my mind, I remembered the comparison of life to a tapestry.  I love sewing metaphors and thinking of life that way, I knew that threading a needle in the darkness that comes to us—often unbidden, often feared—is a vital human skill. Everyone must thread his needle in the darkness of dimming eyesight, the shadows of confusion, the blindness of threat and fear and uncertainty. To thread the needle is to take up hope and courage, to forge ahead, however blindly.  Or, when dazzled by too much light, overwhelmed, we may have to thread our needles eyes shut. If we are to stitch on life’s tapestry through those bewildering moments, we’ll have to thread our needles—even when clearly we cannot see.

This sense of darkness happens to all sorts of people. I read a Time Magazine review of Mother Teresa’s personal letters and their analysis that were published in a book called, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, by Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk. The review expresses fascination with Mother Teresa’s struggle with uncertainty and depression. The article’s incredulity at the presence of doubt and depression in such a respected and productive Christian irritated me.  Some comments labeled her a hypocrite for urging others to believe and give while she struggled in private.

To think that struggle negates faith and lessens acts of love is an absurd notion. Mother Teresa’s written words give a partial impression of her life of faith.  Her actions—brighter and more obvious—complete the portrait. If she felt the darkness common to humanity as she fed the hungry, calmed others’ fears, then her acts of kindness and faith are that much brighter. To focus on her depression as a sort of revelation is to take a blurry look at what is clear—though frail, though human, Mother Teresa’s life was sewn with dark threads, yes and also with bright, life-giving threads. The shadow of her struggle emphasizes the hope and beauty she created for so many.

My former high school students are now adults. When they snoozed or studied in my class, I knew nothing about what they would achieve or suffer. Now many are married, have careers or artistic endeavors begun. Many are caring for families, many have fought in our country’s wars. Many are facing difficulties; they are finding themselves in places that are heart-breaking and hard, uphill and rocky. 

I remember one such student well. She won my respect one day toward the end of her senior year. As a member of the yearbook staff, she was often called out of class to take a picture.  This particular day, applicants to the National Honor Society would be notified of the committee’s decision. It would be my student’s final opportunity to join and she hoped to be selected. The process was this: a veteran member of NHS would interrupt the student in class by tapping his or her shoulder.  They were called out to the hall where they were robed with the banner of the honor society.  Wonderful, thrilling—except for those who tried and didn’t make it. 

My classroom door opened and a member of the yearbook staff beckoned, “Do you mind, Mrs. Nebbia? S__ (student) is needed to take pictures of the NHS tapping.” I nodded my permission, my eyes on the disappointment that flushed up my student’s face as she left her seat, snatching her camera and composing her emotions.  She moved without hesitation; a generous and resolute smile came to her face and I realized that from deep within, she was determined to be happy for those selected, to think about them and their honor. Even if she were to be disappointed, she’d rejoice with others.  I admire that sort of courage and spirit; to me it is the golden sort of thread with which we can stitch life’s story in dark moments.  

In the hall she was surprised with her own NHS cowl.  Someone else took the picture of her moment of honor and she glowed with a strength that came from her steady, unselfish character.  That true character lived inside her every day—on fair days, on quiet days when nothing much was happening. But in those dark moments of disappointment, she threaded her needle with a readiness too fast for sight or study and took bright and costly stitches.

Now this student is facing difficult circumstances.  When I read her blog and blogs of her classmates and students who came through my class years later, I find accounts of bright moments of hope and faith stitched on the backdrop of dark and unfair circumstances, stitched on the mud-like ground of illness and death threatening. A moment ago, they were children, now the details of their lives are universal and unwieldy. But their courage shows me how to thread a needle in the darkness; their determination to hope and believe inspires me to continue to do so.

Like my students, another friend has been threading her needle in the darkness of several severe health crises. Her suffering stretched for months and separated her from work and fun and those she loved. My friend is a painter and a quilter; she dislocated her elbow and endured months when she could not move her hand or arm. But as soon as she could, she took up her needle and began to create beauty. Physical therapy restored the use of her body, but her creativity restored her soul. She told me that she planned her quilt projects while unable to move. The planning and the sewing gave her more to think about than her own pain. The darkness of the days was the background for the creation of something meaningful, lovely and memorable.
The appliqué quilt was stitched by hand as soon as she could move her fingers. While she was making it, her niece became ill. In the dim hospital room, my friend worked for uncounted hours, stitching her hope into a quilt, hope that the young woman will fully recover and hang this gorgeous, handmade tribute to love and life and courage in her own home.

Down again with debilitating illness, this friend remembered the joy her dog, Lucky, had brought to her life. Unable to sew, she planned and imagined a quilt that would show his vitality.  Stitching it by hand, now, as she recovers lifts her spirit and strengthens her.  And she is making something of great beauty and meaning, something conceived in weakness and frustration. The detail and artistry show a connection to life’s treasures brought to light through much struggle.

Some of us who reach out in the darkness feel alone and guilty as if they should not be in the darkness, trying. As if their own will or mistake put them in the shadows rather than those dark places being part of the human condition. But no! Bravo to those who recognize the bleak nature of their surroundings and make hope-filled choices. God is with us in tender sympathy when we stitch our life’s stories in the darkness, though He may not be seen or sensed.  A favorite Psalm expresses it this way: “…the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to You.”

My mother-in-law has brought joy and artistry to our family with favorite recipes. She invented our iced tea, taught me to cook sauce for spaghetti and meatballs, Thanksgiving turkey, and apple pie, but she is careful about giving advice. Twice in the years I’ve known her has she advised me and I have treasured both those bits of wisdom. Years ago, she pointed out a mistake I was making with one of my children.  It was difficult to hear, I’m sure difficult for her to say, but she softened the moment by adding, “I’m certainly no one to give advice. I often felt as if I were groping in the dark to know how best to raise my children.”

Her reflection surprised me as I knew her to be both competent and successful, but I took her advice about that child, treasured it, really.  I loved, too, the honesty of the image. Her description of mothering is not a negative thing; it’s not shameful.  Searching through the darkness means that I admit my condition, (I am not all-knowing; I’m not all-seeing. I’m human), and I am looking—my arms are outstretched with looking—for answers, instruction, wisdom. 

I have felt this way. Oh, I know there are self-help books; I read my Bible daily, too. I listen to advice and watch others’ successful practices. But how to put it all together— what stitches to take, where and how big—that’s what I have to discover. And it’s difficult to see that tapestry of my times, the one I’m stitching when I’m running as fast as I can, when my next step is unclear, or I’ve stumbled and beyond looks took steep. It’s even harder to see when loved ones are yearning and I’m not sure what I can give or say to help.

Life’s path is blurry and rushed and uncertain at best. Life requires us to seek and yearn through the darkness, while we are hoping to make something clearly beautiful. When night has fallen too quickly, life requires our threading the needle, stitching bright and black with faulty, uncomprehending and hopeful eyes.

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