Quilting words

It is a slow season for a traveling bookstore in northwest Montana. The snow is starting to settle in and the pandemic has settled heavily in these parts as well. So the bookstore is parked. Occasionally locals stop by and I put a bag of books together for them. It is a very good season to be reading.

Besides my own reading, there is also quilting. Some years back, I began going to a group that meets every Friday to hand quilt in an old schoolhouse. Their efforts bring in funds to support the local museum. Not a person who sews by nature, I mostly wanted to be with these women who knew the history of the valley and who lead by example. They told me I needed to quilt if I was going to hang with them on Fridays so gradually I learned how to make small(ish) stitches, how to attach quilt layers to a frame.

stretching back of quilt on frame

This year in an attempt to make the physical and mental adjustments to Covid, I began creating three quilts. For me, quilting is collaboration. There really isn’t any way to imagine doing it alone. I asked people for fabric, I asked for gloves – as the one quilt features gloves and how our sense of touching others changed during these times. For another quilt, I wanted faces so a friend, Shirley Jacobs, began helping me produce wood block portraits of twenty individuals who passed away over the last six months. Another friend who is a remarkable quilter helped us piece the portrait quilt together. And this week, the women began the process of putting it on the frame to quilt.

Basting

Thinking about this and the wonderful children’s books available about quilts, I decided to put together a list just in case you need ideas for holiday shopping. Of course, you can order any of these from independent bookstores.

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

Quiltmaker’s Gift by J. Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson

Quilt Story by Tony Johnson and Tomie de Paola

Quilts of Gee’s Bend by Susan Goldman Rubin

Halloween

Last week while sorting books at the end of the traveling bookstore season, I had the idea to give books rather than mass-produced candy away for Halloween. There were a few aspects to figure out especially distributing something in the midst of a pandemic. With help from a friend, we wrapped over fifty books, marking each with a code so it was easy to discern if the package would be appropriate for a pre-schooler, a beginning reader, middle school student, etc. The town folks decided to do a Trunk or Treat on the main street so I minimally decorated the back of my car, loaded a pumpkin along with the books, and parked downtown.

The books were mostly a big hit. I suspect it was a combination of recipients getting something different (a book and not just another packet of M&M’s), and as it came wrapped, there was the heightened sense of receiving a surprise. Of course I quickly realized that small children often have small bags for their treats, so large picture books were problematic. Next year I will do a better job on that. I also realized that even in a small town, I should have had at least twice as many books to give out. Next year.

There’s the tendency to be optimistic that next year things will be better – politically, with the pandemic, with climate change. Surely we’ll get a handle on some of these things. Its evident we aren’t simply facing one person who happens to be a bully, but a sizeable portion of our citizens who support him. And we aren’t all diligently focused on stemming the Covid tide but muddled hurling terms like anti-maskers and hoax at each other.

I was thinking about all this while handing out books. There were kids dressed as unicorns and others as Harry Potters. Quite a few Captain Americas, some witches and princesses mingled in there, and four young people dressed as cows. A local restaurant owner dressed as a plague doctor, had me wondering when is a costume no longer a costume. There were two youngsters dressed in camo but I figured we’re in Montana and its hunting season.

It did surprise me the number of adults who weren’t wearing masks as they socialized along the downtown sidewalk meeting up with friends, standing in groups talking. It was unnerving to see a young teen dressed as Kyle Rittenhouse. I must admit I felt relieved to hand out the last few books and drive away. But of course, we can’t really drive away now, can we? Wherever we are, we are part of the solution – or part of the problem. But we can’t be neutral, it isn’t possible to live outside the fray. We can’t just drive away, leaving the problems in our rear view mirror. Its a matter of deciding where to put our energy.

Hands

I assume we all are multi-tasking at a new level these days physically, emotionally, economically. A parent tries to work while supervising children who are learning at home. How many people weigh a job that puts them at risk against inadequate unemployment benefits? Individuals strive to shelter in place, yet are committed to protesting injustice. Teachers juggle working with students in classrooms and students online. We are urged to be kind and to breathe deeply during these wild times of a pandemic and political turmoil. Yet we know we can’t be silent, we must do more than smile. We need to step up. We need to lend a hand.

Two books of photographs came through my house on their way to the traveling bookstore. One features photos mainly of hands by Eve Arnold, a book I’ve always admired. We do so much with our hands from holding a baby, to pulling a trigger, fixing an engine to threading a needle, butchering a pig to shaping steel. Arnold’s book is remarkable in all the lives she captures, the depths that are revealed. The other book, Women, features Annie Leibovitz‘s photos accompanied by Susan Sontag‘s words, and yes, both Leibovitz’s images and Sontag’s essay will instantly absorb you.

I am fortunate to have both books in front of me at this moment. The people captured by the photographers’ lens, and the questions posed in Sontag’s essay broaden my experience. And isn’t that what we expect books to do? To take us out of ourselves, to show us a different place, a different existence. To remind us that everything doesn’t necessarily start and stop with my individual life. Rather each of us is intertwined with so many others in a myriad of ways. Through books, we can glimpse others’ lives, learn of unimagined experiences, our world grows. Hopefully we gain insight. We see the faces of those who mine coal, a man’s fingers picking coffee beans, a woman’s hands sewing garments in a factory. We see the hands of a surgeon and the hands of an addict. Leibovitz gives us women farmers, actors, scholars, athletes, and politicians.

My take away from these books is the strength we each possess. Despite hardships, despite the place we find ourselves in at this moment. The look in the eyes of the miners at the end of their day, the nurse finishing a long shift, the woman weaving. Both books are reminders of humans’ capabilities and determination.

Handbook, Eve Arnold (2004)

Women, Annie Leibovitz and Susan Sontag (2000)

What we can do

I know most of the titles in my traveling bookstore and also a good portion of the ones in my warehouse/garage. And normally I would say I definitely know which books I have on the bookshelves in my house because really, there aren’t that many in my house compared to the bookstore and the garage. But last week while trying to find one on my shelf to lend a friend, I came across a book I didn’t recognize. Looked interesting so I pulled it out and immediately consumed it – staying up way too late that night. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories by Luis Sepúlveda is a gem. Compare it to a delicious dinner that immediately has you wanting more. And more. I began to investigate Sepúlveda, what else he had written and was writing. A very sharp, dark moment when I discovered he died this past April from COVID.

A children’s book Sepúlveda wrote, The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly did catch my attention as I read about this author/political activist. A cat teaching a seagull to fly. Sounds rather impossible, doesn’t it? But aren’t there moments these days when many things seem impossible? The current state of the US? The pandemic? What about attempts to limit the USPS (an entity that independent bookstores very much depend on)? How to best educate our young people as we scramble to find what works and is healthy for communities? The climate situation continuing to spin out of control? Yes, the list of daunting tasks facing us goes on and on. But in Sepúlveda’s story (spoiler alert), the cat does indeed teach the seagull to fly. It is not easy. And it involves working with others because rarely can gargantuan tasks be accomplished alone. I am truly thankful for the tales Sepúlveda bequeathed us, and his reminder that regardless of the task, we need to find our way. Things may seem impossible, and this Chilean author had many experiences in his own life that were indeed challenging, but we cannot give up.

Civil disobedience

Earlier this week, the traveling bookstore set up at a farmers market. The market manager put out signs reminding people to wear masks and maintain social distances. Besides selling used books and postcards, the traveling bookstore gave away free face masks, masks made by women in the community who have been sewing mountains of them since March.

People stand and read books during silent protest in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

I really enjoy talking books with people. I appreciate hearing kids enthuse about what they want to read. I like seeing someone get excited when they find a book they are searching for on the shelves – or discover a gem they didn’t even know they wanted. The traveling bookstore is small but it does have a remarkable inventory. Ask the man who inquired about a book on horses and I tried not to look doubtful as I pulled out the only three I had, but one was EXACTLY what he wanted. Most of the time, setting up the traveling bookstore brings joy.

And then someone stopped by who wasn’t wearing a face mask. In my kindest I-care-about-you voice I said masks were required at the farmers market and I had a box full of free ones so he could take his pick. But no. He didn’t want a mask. He said, with a smile, he was practicing civil disobedience.

I don’t know about you, but hearing ‘civil disobedience’ got my mind spinning on Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. I thought of Rosa Parks on the bus, the Stonewall uprising and the people in Tiananmen Square. I wanted to ask him what he meant. I wanted to say civil disobedience is an act to be honored, it isn’t a joke. I wanted to offer him a book, but he had already walked away.

And I was pissed trying to think how to react. It is a situation that plays out too frequently in my community these days. So it wasn’t anger at just this individual, but at the situation with the pandemic, with individuals and businesses who make choices that are potentially harmful to others, and at myself for feeling powerless.

But the incident got me thinking about civil disobedience and the remarkable occasions when people stood up to make the world better. Not only stood up but put their lives on the line. Gandhi’s Salt March, protests in Egypt, Ukraine, East Germany, and Selma. The list is long and if everyone who participated was counted, it would be millions. Millions! Millions of individuals who acted to make a difference, a positive difference. A difference that made the world a better place for themselves and their children and their neighbors. People were arrested and tear-gassed and blasted with fire hoses, and some were killed. Those who survived were willing to endure anything because they believed their endurance would change things for the better. And often it did.

I don’t know what vision the man held who refused to wear a mask at the farmers market. I hope he has a view larger than his own inconvenience on a summer’s afternoon. I am thankful my thoughts turned towards those who stood up for change, those who chose to walk towards something better, who kept true to their vision for days, months, even years. And this led me to consider when a choice to stand against power makes sense, and why in other instances it just seems wrong.

Some suggestions……

Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today

Dorothy Day’s Hold Nothing Back

Angela Y. Davis’s If they Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance

Duncan Green’s How Change Happens

Audre Lorde’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You

Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works

If you decide to purchase any of these titles, please support an independent bookstore.

Stitches

To sew is to pray. Men don’t understand this. They see the whole but they don’t see the stitches. They don’t see the speech of the creator in the work of the needle. We mend. We women turn things inside out and set things right. We salvage what we can of human garments and piece the rest into blankets. Sometimes our stitches stutter and slow. Only a woman’s eye can tell. Other times, the tension in the stitches might be too tight because of tears, but only we know what emotion went into the making. Only women can hear the prayer. from Louise Erdrich’s Four Souls. HarperCollins, 2004

Yes, it is summer so I read. And I take the traveling bookstore around to events in northwest Montana where mostly I set up at farmers markets. When not reading or doing the traveling bookstore business, I work on a quilt these days. I am not a very experienced quilter so it feels a bit odd and definitely awkward. It could be called an art quilt although that seems pretentious. It will be a quilt that can cover someone’s bed, can be wrapped around you on a chilly evening as you read. It is made from fabric and gloves people gave me. I am trying to get the stitching right.

It made sense at that beginning to call it a pandemic quilt. That doesn’t capture it all now as I sew. Initially the idea came from gloves we wore to keep ourselves and our communities healthy, and also the stark physical isolation as many people stopped hugging, stopped shaking hands. Yet circumstances unfolded – or became more vivid. At the beginning it was about a virus but expanded into a lack of leadership and into Black Lives Matter and then older women linking arms to protect protestors. My neighbor across the street put a “Faith Over Fear” sign in her front yard. A thirty-year-old Congresswoman gave a speech that spoke to power. Many foreign borders are now closed to Americans.

I sew a quilt. I make books available to people. I hope for the best, but know we each must contribute to make that happen.

Summer reads

Summer is a truly awesome time to read. Whether you are in a hammock, or at the beach, inside with a fan blowing to keep you cool, or sitting in a camp chair in the mountains, reading in summer has its own special magic. Which means I certainly read more, and I notice my customers seem hungrier for books. A man stopped by my house the other morning, apologized for the inconvenience but wondered if he could go into the bookstore. With the hot weather and sheltering in place, he was going through multiple books each week. He desperately needed more. Of course, I opened up the bookstore and let him browse. Of course, I want any reader to have sufficient reading material. Especially in summer.

Recently the bookstore set up at a new venue, although still in Lincoln County, Montana because it doesn’t feel like the right time to be traveling in this country. I inquired the week before about setting up at the Libby farmers market. Not only did they welcome the idea of a traveling bookstore, but they assured me the market had a mandatory face mask policy. That’s what sold me. I was ready to drive the hour and a half each way to participate. Not only did the market managers require all vendors to wear masks, but they politely requested all customers to wear masks as well. They even had disposable ones to give to anyone who might come to the market without their own.

Libby is about seventy miles from Eureka, a drive along beautiful Lake Koocanusa. Seventy miles mostly without radio reception and the bookstore is of a vintage that doesn’t have a CD player or Bluetooth. A good amount of time to drive appreciating the beauty of place, and thinking about things. Arrived in Libby early enough to have lunch in a friend’s shady backyard before going to the farmers market to set up. It was a delicious lunch, served with a reminder from my friend to focus on positive things.

It is a rough time politically in so many ways. But there I was at a farmers market with interesting vendors and customers to talk with, children excited to buy books, market managers who graciously enforced the state mandate for face masks, and I got to experience it all with a traveling bookstore. I bought delicious pastries from the Gracious Table booth. I met two women who were working for Census 2020 who had fascinating stories to tell me. I marveled at the efforts of Hoot Owl Farm, not only selling lovely produce but keeping their long line of customers well spaced.

People engaged in conversations. People shared ideas. People were willing to wear face masks on a hot afternoon. There were many positive things that day to refresh me for the drive back home.

Bookstore quandaries

When individuals remark how much they would enjoy owning a bookstore, I wonder if they have any idea the number of quandaries a bookstore owner must constantly mull over. Of course there is the question of what sort of books to carry. Should it be used or new or some combination? But then which titles? Are you selecting titles that will be popular with any customer who walks thru the door, or are you selecting titles you believe are really good books – reads that improve the world somehow with ideas or the story or the style of writing? Or finding some middle ground?

With a traveling bookstore, there are also questions about where to set up. Farmers markets, county fairs and music festivals might seem to be easy choices. But what about setting up in the parking lot of bars or fast food joints? Is it useful to open the wonderful world of books to anyone and everyone, anywhere regardless? Or should the bookstore be more selective – similar to choosing non-GMO foods?

Of course, that is a whole other rabbit hole to go down when starting to consider what is healthy. Does it even make sense to drive around the country selling books? On the one hand, this particular bookstore gets reasonably good mileage and uses solar to power the store’s lights. But can that begin to justify using petroleum products to peddle books?

The current pandemic raises other questions about customers’ safety. Is it possible to take enough precautions wiping off the grab bar, washing hands frequently, even making free face masks available? I begin this traveling bookstore season without any long trips planned for the summer, keeping the bookstore in the northwest corner of Montana, but still…is opening the bookstore sensitive to the community?

Last week, I set up the bookstore at a very small farmers market in a very small town, wearing my face mask and having hand sanitizer available. There were four other vendors that day and a handful of folks admiring the lovely early summer produce, perusing flower planters made from old horseshoes, and contemplating delicious bags of homemade fudge. A couple men stopped by the bookstore, gave me a nod and went in. They were each wearing a sidearm, a handgun in a holster. I had focused on keeping things clean and customers safely distanced and now here was a quandary I hadn’t yet considered. Where did I stand on having guns worn in the bookstore?

It has been nearly a week and I am still mulling this quandary over. Do I post a sign stating no firearms allowed? Do I try to engage in a conversation the next time (if there is a next time) when someone comes up to shop for books sporting a gun? Do I shrug it off as after all the two men were polite, bought books, and even talked with me about their choice of books?

I haven’t come up with an answer yet that is personally satisfying. I will take this opportunity though to warn anyone considering opening a bookstore that there will be an awful lot of things to think about.

I’m being careful

It would help if Google translate could distinguish the intonation and nuances of individuals saying, “I’m being careful.” Hopefully someday someone will do a study to tease out what everyone meant who uttered this sentence over the last few months. Even in my small rural community, there is a range of information, misinformation, political beliefs, health beliefs, health concerns and personal preferences manifested in “I’m being careful”.

I’m being careful. I have a mask if I have to leave my house and I wash all the groceries delivered to my door. But really, I haven’t left my house in weeks and I certainly don’t let anyone come visit.

I’m being careful. I only go to the box stores when I am very low on stuff and then I try to keep my distance from other customers. I help some of my neighbors by shopping for them while I am there. When I stop by afterwards to drop off their purchases, I only visit for a few minutes, just long enough to say hello and make sure they are doing okay.

I’m being careful. I wash my hands at least ten times a day and when I come home, I always use the hand sanitizer my mom gave me. When my girl friend comes over, she uses it too.

I’m being careful. I always take my mask with me just in case I have to stand close to someone to talk. I rarely go out – perhaps a few times a week to the grocery store and the post office, perhaps the copy shop. Of course I do the bank’s drive thru and occasionally I do a coffee drive thru but those are obviously safe. And when I get gas, I’m standing outside.

I’m being careful. But I’m 89 years old and really don’t want to spend the time I have left stuck in my house alone. I listen to my doctor but I admit I play cards once a week with friends and invited the grandchildren over on Mother’s Day. Life is short. But, yes, I do try to be as careful as possible.

I’m being careful. I decided to go to Florida to visit my sister for a week but we only walked on the beach in the morning when hardly anyone else was there. And because we know sun and warmth stop the virus, I decided it was fine to visit her rather than just stay stuck at home.

I’m being careful. I only associate with a handful of people who live nearby. We think of ourselves as a social pod so as long as we all are careful, we’ll stay healthy. And besides limiting our group’s exposure to germs, the neighborhood pod keeps us sane. I mean we’re social creatures after all.

I’m being careful. I am making sure we all keep the rights this great country gives us. No one can tell me what to do, and I am being very careful that it stays that way. We had a rally in Helena last week.

I’m being careful. I’ve gone through gallons of bleach! I am being extra careful because I have workers remodeling my bathroom this month and I want to make sure none of us gets sick. And I told those construction guys I didn’t want them partying over the weekend, because we all need to be very cautious during this pandemic.

I’m being careful. We wintered in Arizona and really didn’t socialize a whole lot there once the virus started. Now we’re headed back to Montana for the summer. Of course we’ll be careful, although now the Montana governor announced after June 1 there isn’t any need for people coming in from out of state to quarantine. So what’s a week here or there?

I’m being careful. The local farmers market is opening for the season. They said all vendors should take precautions and make hand sanitizer available for customers. I’ll only allow one person or family group into the traveling bookstore at a time because I’m being careful.

The Dickens of it

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities (1859). Sort of captures the moment, doesn’t it? Of course, there is the question whether we’ve inched into the spring of hope or are still languishing in the winter of despair? Perhaps we each answer that for ourselves. Not easy, and the plethora of possibilities is overwhelming. In Montana at the moment, lilacs are budding and daffodils are in bloom. Yet even with the promise of apple blossoms, there’s sharp division among townsfolk whether we should open up everything or wait.

Waiting. Not something most of us do well. We want it all now. Actually yesterday would be better. Don’t even mention the 900-day siege of Leningrad. What do you mean it takes five minutes to download a movie?! Our Amazon delivery definitely needs to arrive within the next 24-hours. Zero to sixty in ten – yes, that’s what we want.

But things shifted. Many of us (depending on country and culture) are moving at a very different pace now because we have to. Many main street businesses are still closed. Shelter-in-place. Keep a distance. For days, weeks, months we’ve spent an unbelievable amount of time inside either caged alone or with others who hopefully we won’t grow tired of (or frightened of) before the entrapment ends.

Perhaps it depends on your personality type and economic situation how this experience works. Is it finally time to read that pile of books? How do they manage homeschooling and still work? Or surprisingly, she suddenly became a couch potato addicted to Netflix. He caught up on mounds of correspondence – writing real letters pages long filled with thoughts and emotions. The shoe box of photographs was nearly organized. Maybe it was the time to take on a project never thought possible, yet here you are doing it. Or maybe a darkness descended that threatened to extinguish who you are. Or you are angry because there are those who don’t agree with you, who make different choices, who put you at risk. Or limit your Constitutional rights. Or just do things differently.

Today I would like to have coffee with Margaret Atwood, listen to her sensible views of the world, appreciating her smile, appreciating her use of language, appreciating her wisdom. That’s what I want today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwrQQXt7Icw