A long life

This is not what I intended to start right now, but I’m really intrigued to know how long it will get, and how long it will take.

Let’s start at the beginning.

A while ago two things happened that made me stop and think: I read a statistic that the lifetime of a person who lives to be in their early 80s amounts to around 30,000 days. That strikes me as much, much fewer than you might expect. Life is short, even when you get to be old.

I also very luckily found a collection of antique and vintage clothing online that included (hand-stitched!) christening gowns and home-made vintage lingerie. One of the items was a silk petticoat, pre-dating elastic because the waistband was made from lingerie tape, but machine-sewn. It was simply made: a narrow A-line skirt constructed with French seams, and a flounced frill around the hem. The silk is very lightweight and billowy – similar to fine habotai.

Vintage silk petticoat, deconstructed

I wonder (and this is just a hunch that feels ‘right’) if this might be a post-war silk parachute that has been repurposed by a resourceful stitcher in the late 1940s.

So I ended up putting those two thoughts together – taking something from around 80 years ago that has potentially saved someone’s life, and using it to make something that signifies an octogenarian lifespan. There is something quite incredible about launching yourself out of an aeroplane with only a gossamer-thin canopy of worm-spit between you and the ground.

A Long Life, conception stage

So the result is a very, very long cloth, just 6” wide, with bits of vintage silk parachute/petticoat applied to a strip of brushed cotton (for stability and softness) on which I intend to place 30,000 stitches.

Vintage silk, machine-stitched seam

I’m keeping as much of the original sewing as possible.

Back fastening, vintage silk petticoat

I have no idea what 30,000 stitches will look like but I’m looking forward to finding out.

March

Another month on the stitch journal, and in total (as of today) there are now 92 blocks of meditative stitching, each one witnessing the passing of a little more time.

Stitch journal, 31 days of March

I’ve deliberately not added space between the days because in reality there isn’t any. Day turns to night and night turns to day, and it is all just time. I continually find myself thinking these are days of my life that have gone forever. Not in a sad way, just noticing the transience and inevitability of it, the impermanence of living. Every day a bit less life left, but every day a bit more life lived. Philip Larkin (‘Days’, 1953) wrote ‘days are where we live…. Where can we live but days?’

March in progress

I like the way the stitch journal is filling up with these moments, and I like the empty space that stretches ahead.

Looking at it from the other end: April days, waiting

I wonder what this new month will bring. April is the cruellest month, according to T S Eliot. Everything is growing, leaves are starting to burst from their buds, and another cycle of life begins. In the garden my young flowering currant is looking particularly splendid at the moment, and I like to memorialise these little moments of recognition.

1st and 2nd April
April: the beginning

One day at a time, going on.

On paper

I really like paper. I especially like painting sheets of paper and then tearing them up to make collages for sketchbook pages – I find this much easier than drawing on a blank page with a pen or pencil. I like the accidental shadings that occur, and the blocks of colour. It’s like patchwork, really.

sketchbook page, collage with painted paper

I’m in the process of making two sketchbooks: one that explores the marks on ancient rocks and stones, and one that explores the marks on ancient landscapes. I find land particularly fascinating because it holds so much time and has witnessed millions of years of life. Land and ground can be synonyms, and grounding is what happens when we connect to the land.

sketchbook page, collage with painted and textured papers
sketchbook page, drawing over collage
Sketchbook page, cut and torn painted papers
sketchbook page, mark-making over monoprint

While I’ve been working on these pages, some thoughts about the fiction I’ve read recently have been weaving themselves together. A couple of months ago I read All Passion Spent, by Vita Sackville West (first published in 1931), which is about an elderly woman who, when widowed, decides to live where she chooses and on her own terms. There is a passage at the beginning of Part Two, where Lady Slane finds that for once she has time to reflect:

‘She had plenty of leisure now, day in, day out, to survey her life as a tract of country traversed, and at last become a landscape instead of separate fields or separate years and days, so that it became a unity and she could see the whole view, and could even pick out a particular field and wander around it again in spirit, though seeing it all the while as it were from a height, fallen into its proper place, with the exact pattern drawn round it by the hedge, and the next field into which the gap in the hedge would lead. So, she thought, could she at last put circles around her life.’

Sketchbook page, collage – ‘so could she at last put circles around her life’

I recall seeing a fascinating interview with the actor Liz Smith a few months ago, and she said it’s only when you get older that you can look back at your life and begin to see the recurring patterns that have always been there. You don’t notice the patterns at the time because you’re too close to recognise them.

In another novel I’ve read recently, Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood (1996), one of the characters, Reverend Verringer, speaks this line:

“What becomes of the soul? We cannot be mere patchworks!” (p. 471, ‘Pandora’s Box’)

Patchwork, silk and cotton fabrics

All these thoughts and patterns are coming together, like paths converging, and it feels as if I am going somewhere. I am still drawing the map, but I have a compass and a vague sense of direction. I am travelling slowly, on foot. Step by step, or stitch by stitch, or piece by piece, it will come together somehow, in its own time.

And *of course* we are all patchworks. What else could we possibly be?