The Third Thing Is the One That Doesn’t Matter

Rattle & Pen is a biweekly column exploring the liminal space between raising children and creating art.

Photo and quilt by Virginia Robinson

Rattle & Pen is so happy to welcome contributor Virginia Robinson back to our pages! This essay of Virginia’s was first published on the Rattle & Pen site in 2013. Virginia Robinson’s collection of poetry, Carrier, was published by Swan Scythe Press in 2005. She now writes, quilts, and raises her young family in North Carolina.

In the winter of my first baby’s first year, I took up quilting. It was the result of a lot of realities, but mostly it was that raising a child was an undertaking that would stretch out as far into infinity as I could imagine, and so too would the accompanying Philadelphia winter. I needed a project that I could do inside. One that took less than 18 years and would make me feel accomplished, even if only in the tiniest of ways.

In the six years since, quilting has become a bigger and bigger part of my life, and paradoxically, the reason I’ve grown to love it so is because in the end, to me, it simply does not matter.

Craft matters, and art matters; keeping warm matters. But sitting at my sewing machine during that winter provided an escape from the pressures of the two things that mattered more urgently: family and career.

If I didn’t get a job writing or teaching in a terrible economy, despair set in. I had a master’s degree and a respectable job history. I used to be able to write coherently, even elegantly at times. Why couldn’t I do that anymore?

Motherhood similarly troubled me at times. If I couldn’t get my daughter to stop crying, panic set in. I’m her only mother.

I learned, wonderfully, that if I stitched something together flat-out wrong and had to scrap it, annoyance visited me, whispered a quick remark, and then floated away on its own, right out the window. Sewing provided a challenge without the shame spiral.

Eventually, I signed up for classes, with women my age who were excited to get out of the house and office to focus on something new, and with women who were older and gave good counsel to those of us in the little kid or career trenches. Writers and other creatives have always been my people, and quilters became that too.

For Christmas 2013, my husband gifted me one of these classes, to make a Lollipop Tree. That’s a very cute name for a very difficult quilt. The class met once a month for six months, and it took me another six months to finish the quilt. My neighbor visited me at some point last year, and some of the pieces of the quilt were draped over a chair. “How can you do this?” she asked. “It takes so long—how do you have time?” That night, I calculated that I had spent an average of 20 minutes a day putting together the quilt. I am lucky that I have 20 minutes in a day to do what I like, and a husband who socializes with his friends on Friday nights, which gives me a big chunk of sewing time. It was nice last year to use those minutes to make something beautiful and to feel a sense of moving forward in that making.

But I was sure to tell my neighbor, “I do it because if I fail, it doesn’t hurt. It’s okay.” Her face kind of lit up, as if having something like that in her own life had not even been conceivable. “That’s so awesome!” she said, smiling. “I need something like that!”

However, at some point, mastering the technical parts of the Lollipop Tree began to overwhelm me. The circles weren’t circular enough, or I missed stitches here and there. Annoyance visited, but this time, it stayed and grew. Why am I bothering with this? I would wonder. When I talked to my quilting friends about the quilt, I sounded oppressed by it and ungrateful for it, which was ridiculous. I was, and am, a woman who can afford to take up what is basically blanket-making as a hobby, not as a necessity. Quilting had stopped being the third thing, the playtime, and became…I don’t even know what. Not a job, and not an obsession (I’m pretty sure). Maybe just something I cared too much about.

Recently, at a convention I attended, a successful fabric designer and children’s book illustrator gave a lecture on maintaining a creative career. She insisted that once a hobby you love becomes work, it is imperative that you find a new hobby. She gave herself as an example. Once designing and drawing became her bread and butter, she took up tennis with a bunch of women who called themselves “The Hummingbirds,” because after their rounds of tennis, they would go to a bar, and, like hummingbirds do, drink the equivalent of their own weights. Because tennis doesn’t matter to them, really. Other things do.

My life will always focus on my family and my work. My goals for stitching this year are simply to complete some unfinished projects and to start a few new easy quilts. The reason for this flexible goal is to keep sewing what it should be for me: the necessary, beloved, and untroubling third thing.