My grandparents’ garage was a virtual wonderland of treasures for a curious child such as myself. Their home was tiny--maybe 900 square feet at most. They did not even have a dining room. They ate on an old table in their kitchen. Their furniture was as old as they were and you could have packed up all their belongings in a small U-Haul trailer. But I remember their garage and shed as the place to be. It had their wash tubs, wash/rub boards and their old ringer washer. Being people of the Great Depression, they saved EVERYTHING. You could go into the garage and find shelves of jars and boxes with everything from rubber bands to string to wire, nails, screws, and an assortment of tools. They made their own lye soap and believed fiercely in homemade remedies for almost any ailment. I had my own little wash board which still hangs in my laundry room today. I would say my grandparents made do with what was at hand. Their due diligence to be frugal and yet creative in their work reminds me of a quilt maker of old.
The life of Harriet Powers (1837-1910) is a testimony to using one's gifts and what she had at hand to share powerful stories. She quilted stories of faith, betrayal, grace, testing, and divine interaction in the world. Her beautiful quilts told great stories. She called her quilts Patchwork Sermons. Her technique of applique’ on quilts recorded local legends, Bible stories, and even astronomical events. Harriet had no vast wealth. She had come from slavery to freedom. But it was the freedom of the Reconstruction South which did vast amounts of harm. Even so, Harriet created and worked hard to share stories of faith with her now famous quilts. Some of her work is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA. Harriet did not let the limitations of her place and station in life deter her message and artistry. She took what she had at hand and gave us beauty and stories. She defied all odds and was a source of strength and faith to many
A Lesson Learned
In this time of pandemic when our options are more limited with travel and interaction with others, I find myself trying my best to make do with what I have at hand. Sometimes it is a challenge! However, if I start to feel sorry for myself about that, I just think of Harriet, my grandparents and so many others in the Biblical narrative who not only persevered, but gave so much strength and faith for us to lean on. They took what they had at hand and made something strong and beautiful.
My grandparents did not have very much money at all, but they had a lot of love. I think back to how Grandpa made us a playhouse out of an old wooden crate. He drilled holes in an old broom stick and put a thin, used leather strap through the hole for the reins making me the most beautiful stick horse in the world. In my mind’s eye my stick horse was a blonde stallion with a flowing mane. Grandpa made fishing poles out of whittled branches with string for a line. We put a little salt pork on the end of the string which made for good crawdad catching. Grandma made me rag dolls out of old sheets and discarded clothing that could no longer be mended and patched. She provided countless old cans and well-worn kitchen utensils for making mud pies. I did not know at the time they were making do with what was at hand. They had no money to buy their grandchildren "store bought" toys. I thought going to their home was so very special. What I now realize all these years later is that it was their love and their living stories that were such a magnet for me. It is those things that took a part in shaping who I am today.
Maybe I should look around a little closer. I may just have some treasures at hand that can fill this day with the same kind of faith, love, and artistry given to us by Harriet Powers and my grandparents. I won't be looking in our garage. I will be looking into my heart. Maybe you would like to join me. What do you have at hand?
God in the Making
commentary by Jay McDaniel
In the spiritual alphabet of Spirituality and Practice, the letter "T" represents two practices: Teachers and Transformation. The two go together. Some of our best teachers are those who display the creative side of transformation with their lives and their storytelling. People like Harriet Powers, for example, or Nita Gilger’s grandparents.
The transformation at issue need not be dramatic and earth-shaking. It can be a simple practice in daily life: making quilts out of what is at hand, for example, or making toys. It can be practiced again and again. And its objective need not be personal transformation alone, it can also be for the sake of enhanced relationships with others, as when Nita’s grandmother made toys for her. Are the outcomes of the transformation inside us or outside us? The answer is both. Yes, Harriet and Nita’s grandparents made observable objects from observable materials: quilts and fishing poles. But those same objects told stories from their lives. Stories of courage and creativity, love and faith. For my part, I am moved by the image of Nita’s grandfather making a fishing pole for her, or her grandmother making cans for mud pies, and of Harriet making her quilts. Indeed, I see God in the making. Not only a distant God who watches from afar and delights, but also an inner God who is within each of them as a spirit of ordinary creativity: a spirit encouraging and empowering them to make something good out of what is at hand.
Nita’s essay is likewise an example of making something good with those materials: her memories, for example, and her knowledge of Harriet Powers, and are feelings about them. Whitehead says that the heart of experience in the immediacy of the present is an act of “the many becoming one and being increased by one.” In Nita’s case, the ‘many’ are her memories and they ‘become one’ in her writing, which itself adds to the ‘many’ that are part of her future and ours. That can sound abstract, but really it’s very concrete. It’s this memory, this quilt, this fishing pole, this faith that, no matter what happens, there’s something good to be made of it.