Siege Diaries 4/13/2021

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Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt:  What would less look like?

I think the key here is to understand that “less” should not mean “lacking.”  The ideal in everything is to find the sweet spot–wherever that may be–between too much and not enough.  And to me, with language, a lot depends on whether I am discussing facts or emotions.  With facts, clarity and succinctness is absolutely key.  With emotions, the range is much wider.  Sometimes the right word or the right phrase can make all the difference.  And sometimes it is the space between words, those moments of silence, that make all the difference.   Sometimes a flurry of rich, descriptive language can convey a particular feeling;  sometimes, one perfect word will do it.  I think you can extend this metaphor to life.

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Those of you who regularly read this blog know I’ve been sinking a lot of time into embroidery over the past seven or eight months.  Since mid-August, I’ve been rarely without a project for more than a few days.  Behind the scenes, I’ve developed a kind of queue of projects in some stage of planning.

This may not look like a new thing.  I have seldom been without at least one creative project on the go, and needlework has been a huge part of my life since I was 8.  But this is different in some ways, and I have some thoughts as to why.

In the early days of the pandemic, other than for writing, I was in a kind of creative paralysis.  So much of my creative output was focused on things I could wear or on C&I work that would be given to others.  There was a great deal of what I would call creative innovation there–that is, not simply following a pattern, but actively designing and creating a new thing, usually based on a groundwork of research.   Even when I was following a pattern, there were choices of materials and ornamentation.   When the pandemic hit, the pipeline for these things dried up.   Why make a new garment with nowhere to wear it?  And for C&I, where the joy had always been in creating a piece of art specifically tailored to its recipient, without those awards and without those recipients, I found myself unmotivated to create.  The research and design work has always been such a crucial part of all of this.

Things changed with a simple piece done for the first SMASH scavenger hunt.  It was only a quote from Lion in Winter, done under pressure at almost the last moment,  It fit rather firmly into the genre of snarky cross stitch, except it was freeform embroidery.  But it broke a kind of mental barrier about doing my own design work.   The thing is, I’d started to knock on that mental barrier earlier in the year with my very first Shostakovich piece.  That was a new one–a non-practical embroidery piece (that is, not something that was meant to be trim on a dress or that kind of thing; meant only to hang on my wall) that was wholly conceived and designed by me, simply because I wanted to do it.  And I did it.  And then, with that project complete, I happily framed it and went on to my next more conventional project.  (It was a scroll, in fact–and it was one of my best).   And then–lockdown.

So it took to July to realize that maybe what I was looking for was a kind of permission to make a thing not for any practical purpose, but because it moved me, because there was something to be found in the creative process itself–in the experience, in a year where new experiences were almost completely absent.

Dr. Natasha Rajah, on CBC’s The Current yesterday

So what I know from that type of research is that to learn and to acquire these new memories and rich contextual detail, we actually require temporal and spatial landmarks and novelty to help us form these memories. So before covid, our days were broken up temporally. We went to the office, we came home, you know, we picked up our children from day-care. And so we had a lot of temporal kind of segments to our day. And we also had more variety in our interpersonal interactions. And the spatial cues that we experienced throughout our day. So this variety and novelty of information really helps us to discriminate and form distinct memories in rich detail. However, now a lot of us have a more monotonous, boring life where there’s, you know, we’re home. We’re not really getting a lot of variety in our spatial cues, the days kind of drag on. We really don’t have events breaking up our day, maybe our zoom meetings are the only events that break up our day. And so all of this lack of novelty and lack of segments in our day really cause our memory to suffer. So we have a lack of detail as a result.

I realized yesterday that’s precisely what was going on with me.  I had been massively engaged with the world around me through all of my senses, particularly sight and sound.   The concerts I was attending (and the travel to get to them), the events I attended, even the GO train commutes–they were stimulating all of my senses, laying down a fertile bed for contemplation and thought.   I was associating music with particular trips–not just to see concerts, either;  hence, my Tuesday evening GO train ritual with the Shostakovich 4th symphony, or binging quartets on a Friday night drive to Ottawa ahead of an SCA event.  Suddenly, that was gone.  I still had the music, of course, but gone was that kind of fertile ground where the association of all the senses could come together to spark creativity.

It was perhaps inevitable that it was another Shostakovich portrait that initiated the project.  I was, at the time, deep into proofing runs for the DSCH Journal, immersed in the bones and structure of language about music.  Yes, I am really saying that editing for style and grammar partially led to artwork, because it did.  I had found the piece I wanted to recreate in an issue of the same journal when I had applied for the proofreading gig, and it apparently lodged somewhere in my brain.  There was also (in retrospect), an unexpected tactile side to breaking out the red editing pen.  I was proofing in hardcopy.  I’m not generally a person who craves physical human contact (quite the contrary–I’ve joked that but I am realizing that I very much value my sense of touch.  And, thinking back on this, and with Dr. Rajah’s words in mind–I was numbed from a tactile sense.  Even the feeling of sitting in a different chair (in a restaurant, on the GO train, on a park bench, or even in the car for more than a few minutes) was gone.  When was the last time I’d turned a doorknob?  Grabbed a handrail?  Felt the petals of a flower between my fingers?  It was the same tactile sensations over and over, mostly those around the house.

But embroidery is special because of a number of different tactile sensations. There is the feel of the thread itself, whether silk or cotton–the way it looks and feels and unwinds from a skein or card.  There is the hardness of the needle, and the act of threading.  There is the stretching of the fabric on frame or hoop.  And then the feeling of stitching itself–that delicate balance of tension feeding back along the thread.  Finally, there is the feeling of gradually building, of filling space with thread, of directing your stiches to curve and blend.   All of these things you can get with kits.  What you cannot get is the act of transformation–for me, looking at a photo or a drawing and then thinking how I might use the threads in my palette to paint that thing in another medium.  When you’re creating your own design on the fly, literally as you stitch, you’re exercising different parts of your brain than you are when you are simply doing the kind of “paint by number” that most kits are built on.

Add to that the fact that every thing I’ve stitched has context as well.  The Shostakovich portraits are tied to music and history.  The illuminated marginalia cats are tied to both history and another art I practice-illumination (and it’s thought historically that those who drew cartoons for embroidery might have been also the people who designed illuminated pieces).  And then, of course, pissed off flood kitty has been, in a way, my mascot for the pandemic.

So there it is.  I think I understand where this impulse has come from.  What I am curious to watch, going forward, is how much it will persist into the future.  Presumably there is going to be a time where there are concerts and meetings and events again, and a reason for sewing and calligraphy projects.  I can’t see me not wanting to continue with these projects, though.  They have not only kept me sane, but they have helped me grow.