An excerpt from “Aunt Jane of Kentucky” by Eliza Calvert Hall that explores piecing a quilt as a metaphor for making the most of your life.
Eliza Calvert Hall: Piecing a Quilt is Like Living a Life
Eliza “Lida” Caroline Calvert Obenchain (1856-1935), using the pen name Eliza Calvert Hall, was a prolific writer and advocate for women’s rights. Nine of her short stories were collected in “Aunt Jane of Kentucky” in 1907. What follows is an expert from the third story, Aunt Jane’s Album. This passage has been edited for clarity.
“Did you ever think, child,” she said, presently, “how much piecing a quilt is like living a life? […]
You see, you start out with just so much calico; you don’t go to the store and pick it out and buy it, but the neighbors will give you a piece here and a piece there, and you will have a piece left every time you cut out a dress, and you take just what happens to come. And that’s like predestination. But when it comes to the cutting out, why, you’re free to choose your own pattern. You can give the same kind of pieces to two persons, and one will make a ‘nine-patch’ and one will make a ‘wild-goose chase,’ and there will be two quilts made out of the same kind of pieces, and just as different as they can be. And that is just the way with living. The Lord sends us the pieces, but we can cut them out and put them together pretty much to suit ourselves, and there’s a heap more in the cutting out and the sewing than there is in the calico. The same sort of things comes into all lives, just as the Apostle says, ‘There hath no trouble taken you but is common to all men.’
“The same trouble will come into two people’s lives, and one will take it and make one thing out of it, and the other will make something entirely different. There was Mary Harris and Mandy Crawford. They both lost their husbands the same year; and Mandy set down and cried and worried and wondered what on earth she was going to do, and the farm went to wrack and the children turned out bad, and she had to live with her son-in-law in her old age. But Mary, she got up and went to work, and made everybody about her work, too; and she managed the farm better than it ever had been managed before, and the boys all come up steady, hard-working men, and there wasn’t a woman in the county better fixed up than Mary Harris. Things is predestined to come to us, honey, but we’re just as free as air to make what we please out of them. And when it comes to putting the pieces together, there’s another time when we’re free. You don’t trust to luck for the calico to put your quilt together with; you go to the store and pick it out yourself, any color you like. There’s folks that always looks on the bright side and makes the best of everything, and that’s like putting your quilt together with blue or pink or white or some other pretty color; and there’s folks that never see anything but the dark side, and always looking for trouble, and treasuring it up after they get it, and they’re putting their lives together with black, just like you would put a quilt together with some dark, ugly color. You can spoil the prettiest quilt pieces that ever was made just by putting ’em together with the wrong color, and the best sort of life is miserable if you don’t look at things right and think about them right.
“Then there’s another thing. I’ve seen folks piece and piece, but when it come to putting the blocks together and quilting and lining it, they’d give out; and that’s like folks that do a little here and a little there, but their lives ain’t of much use after all, any more than a lot of loose pieces of patchwork. And then while you’re living your life, it looks pretty much like a jumble of quilt pieces before they’re put together; but when you get through with it, or pretty nigh through, as I am now, you’ll see the use and the purpose of everything in it. Everything will be in its right place just like the squares in this ‘four-patch,’ and one piece may be pretty and another one ugly, but it all looks right when you see it finished and joined together.”
“Did you ever think, child,” she said, presently, “how much piecing a quilt is like living a life?
I like her fundamental metaphor of assembling a functional whole from dissimilar pieces quite helpful in dealing with the vagaries of life and designing a product or managing your startup. I find the juxtaposition of incongruities into a pleasing, or at least functional, whole to be a powerful approach. It can be collecting and remixing LEGO blocks into new assemblies, gathering field stones into a dry stone fence, or arranging different bits of tile into a mosaic. Gerald Weinberg has written a wonderful book Weinberg on Writing” where he outlines his “Field Stone” method. It’s an approach that likens writing a book to building what the Irish call a “dry stone fence.” You write capsules and modules that you have energy around and then gradually re-work them into a narrative once you understand the topic and how you want to proceed.
There are six more observations that I really liked:
- The Lord sends us the pieces, but we can cut them out and put them together pretty much to suit ourselves, and there’s a heap more in the cutting out and the sewing than there is in the calico.
Our values, energy level, and ability to adapt and improvise matter as much as any particular setback or good fortune. Life is a bricolage, constructed out of found objects, gifts and transmuted pain.
- The same sort of things comes into all lives, just as the Apostle says, ‘There hath no trouble taken you but is common to all men.’
Reminds me of a line from Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” — “There’s only three things for sure: Taxes, death and trouble.” The Apostle is Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13. The trick is to not only anticipate trouble but prepare for it, remaining optimistic.
- There’s folks that never see anything but the dark side, and always looking for trouble, and treasuring it up after they get it.
I like the “treasuring it” phrasing. If you are doing this then you are doing it wrong.
- The best sort of life is miserable if you don’t look at things right and think about them right.
I think a lot of this comes from managing your expectations. In my case my fears form the bulk of my expectations that are useless. I rarely feel the “is that all there is” sensation that some people seem to, but I worry unproductively much more than I should.
- I’ve seen folks piece and piece, but when it come to putting the blocks together and quilting and lining it, they’d give out; and that’s like folks that do a little here and a little there, but their lives ain’t of much use after all, any more than a lot of loose pieces of patchwork.
It’s hard to believe how wearing leaving something unfinished is. Closing the loop, following up, asking for feedback and acting on it all contribute a better life.
- While you’re living your life, it looks pretty much like a jumble of quilt pieces before they’re put together; but when you get through with it, or pretty nigh through, as I am now, you’ll see the use and the purpose of everything in it.
This reminds of me Kierkegaard’s “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” It never hurts to pass and reflect periodically to see if you can make sense of what’s happened.
I will end with a quote from Chesterton that reinforces the value of understanding and reflecting upon the past.
“The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present. History is a hill or high point of vantage, from which alone men see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living. Without some such contrast or comparison, without some such shifting of the point of view, we should see nothing whatever of our social surroundings. We should take them for granted, as the only possible social surroundings. We should be as unconscious of them as we are, for the most part, of the hair growing on our heads or the air passing through our lungs. It is the variety of the human story that brings out sharply the last turn that the road has taken, and it is the view under the arch of the gateway which tells us that we are entering a town.”
G. K. Chesterton in “St. George in Our Time” (June 18, 1932)
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