Christmas 2010, I was spending the festive season with some good friends in tropical Queensland where they’d moved to escape Melbourne’s cold and drizzly winters. After finishing up an intense school year and working hard in my new garden I was ready to relax. Was I looking for a summer craft project? One was looking for me. The craft shop in a nearby town was closing down and in the box of cross-stitch projects was one that called out to me. Amid the teddies and staid country scenes the picture on the front of the package depicted a circle of swirling water, a dragonfly hovering above lily pads and three lotus blossoms, unfolding in various stages from bud to full flower.
“Go on,” my friend urged me.
“You know you want it.”
And so our journey together began. Or rather this project joined me on a journey already in progress. From an emotional crisis point that April I had slowly begun to discover the steps that would lead me to healing from my depressive illness. The goal of healing was as clear as the photograph on the front of my new project but following through on both would be my responsibility.
Step 1, Sort the colors.
In life, anything beautiful has a depth born of complexity and diversity. There were 32 different types of thread included in the package and a thread sorting card to keep track of them. Sorting the threads was fun, achievable and quick, providing a cozy feeling of comfort.
It is all there, all the information I will need to do this project but the reading and intellectual understanding is so different to actually experiencing the process. This paralleled my relationship to mindfulness at that point in my life. I had attended two relaxed weekend retreats that year, at a local Buddhist temple. It wasn’t a case of instant conversion, but I did buy a cd of guided meditations and began doing a ten-minute session, sitting on a chair in my back room, each morning before work. I gave myself weekends and holidays off initially but one
thing the teacher had said resonated with me:
“Meditating is the most important thing you do each day.”
He said lots of other things as well which I don’t remember but that simple idea anchored me in the sea of possibilities which, all essentially good, often overwhelmed me in my fragile state.
Step 3, Take your first stitch.
Choose a color, thread the needle and dive in. There is no other way forward than putting one stitch in and then another. Often when I’ve been doing this project on a train, plane or in a waiting room, those sitting next to me will comment:
“You must be very patient!”
Actually I feel the reverse is true. Persistent, yes, but patient, no. Rather than being a chore, by occupying my hands, this project grounded me, gave me something to hold onto in at a time when I would have been alone with thoughts I wasn’t sure I could bear. Crafting came to me in the healing process as a gift, an outlet for excesses of nervous energy that I gradually learned to transform into something of beauty and value. There was also a little bit of an addictive factor, an obsessive side of my nature would creep in now and then and there was always another thread to follow. I designated the cross-stitch as my summer project, putting it away in a drawer between seasons.
Step 4, Work the Cross Stitches.
The first three steps took less than an hour. Step four took countless hours spread over three years. Through trial and error I developed my own process, first outlining the shapes with the gold thread, which tended to pull and break, then coloring in each segment, constantly referring to the diagram to capture the subtle shades and nuances of the design. Many times I made errors and had to unpick an hour or two’s worth of work, as I realized inaccuracies would cause confusion later.
As I stitched and continued to learn about my mind through meditation I noticed how, as I worked the stitches, my mind raced ahead of my hands, planning what section I would do next, laying out at path for the future, getting excited about anything except what was here and now, the slow, steady work, one stitch at a time. My hands did this, over and over, for a very long time. So it was with healing, sure there were dramatic breakthroughs and insights but mostly it was a matter of unwinding the spiral, one step at a time, choosing again and again not to go down paths of self destruction.
Step 5, Stitch the Details.
I was reluctant to start this step at all. Perhaps I told myself, it was complete as it was? The details mostly involved outlining shapes with dark thread, quite a different skill, a little less precise than the square-by-square work. I was going through a bit of uncertainty with my health too, as I was no longer taking medication, every time I had a bad day or week doubts would begin to assail my mind. Once I talked myself into beginning this step of the cross-stitch I realized that this would take some time. It took another six months of scattered hours but the results strengthened the design, giving it the look of stained glass. So too my emotional struggles built my confidence, every time I came out of a time of doubt without resorting to medication gave me confidence to draw on the next time.
So now this project is complete. I feel a sense of pride and achievement in having created something beautiful with my hands. I also feel a certain emptiness that this project which has travelled far and wide with me over the past three years is finished in a tidy way that our lives never are. What I love most about the finished design is flipping it over to see the reverse side of the cloth. The design is still evident, if slightly fuzzy and decorated with loose ends. Rather like life really. These words, the story, the side we present to the world is the outer side, with all the evidence of craftsmanship, clarity and beauty. But life, the underside is messier and unfinished in appearance. We hide it from display and fear that ours is the only one that looks like that. Healing is about learning to hold both sides in our hearts.