As far away as the days of dial-up connection and overly-enthusiastic “You’ve Got Mail!” messages can seem, I remember them well.
Partly because of my age and partly due to circumstance, I’ve never used a computer at work or in school. By the time I graduated from high school, the IBM System/360 was around, but it wasn’t meant for home use. Thirteen years later, I entered graduate school just as the Apple II entered the world: still, notebooks, pens, and typewriters remained my tools of choice. Ham radio and aerograms connected me to the States during my years in Liberia, and as for varnishing — no one needs Excel spreadsheets or Word documents on the docks.
Certainly, I was aware of computers. After lollygagging around for a few years, I finally purchased one in April, 1999. Days later, I watched as Oklahoma City television broadcast live over the internet while the terrible May 3 tornado outbreak devastated the state. Horrified by the events, I was equally astonished by the technology that made watching them possible. For good or for ill, I’d become hooked on the internet.
I began emailing more often, then found a weather site to help with hurricane tracking. I discovered and laughed at Hampton Hampster, one of the earliest internet memes, and kept laughing after uploading Hampton’s crazy WAV file as my computer’s start up sound.
Eventually, a search for replacement pieces for my mother’s wedding china led me to eBay. For six years, the site provided education, income, community, and fun as I bought and sold antique and vintage china, building my own collection on the side.
From time to time, I ventured into other areas, usually after finding odd or undervalued items that could be turned to make a profit. One year, I came across a set of mis-matched iron clamps: some with beautiful finials. I listed them on eBay as “fancy C-clamps,” and was surprised to see a small bidding war break out.
After the auction ended, the winning bidder explained that they were quilting clamps, meant to be used with old-fashioned, adjustable wooden frames.
When I asked if he had purchased them for a quilter in his family, he said, “Yes, as a matter of fact. I bought them for myself. I’m the one who quilts.” Surprising as it was to meet a man with such interests, the purpose and place of his quilting was even more unexpected.
For years he had worked in Manhattan, in a building very near Ground Zero. After experiencing the events of 9/11 and losing some of his friends and business associates as the buildings collapsed, he found it difficult to return to work. Eventually, he devised his own way of coping with the stress, the anxieties, and the grief. As he explained:
“I’ve put a small frame up in my office, and size it according to my needs. I quilt mostly small pieces, but the size doesn’t matter. It’s the act of quilting that calms me. Now and then, when I can’t stand to think of what’s happened any longer, I begin to stitch.
Quilting helps me remember how we’re going to put our lives back together. One stitch at a time.”
“One stitch at a time” may be quilter’s wisdom, but variations on the theme abound.
When Jon Carpenter asked Neil Gaiman, “How do I finish a story that I believe is going to be great?” Gaiman said, “This is how you do it. You sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” One word at a time.
It works for the spoken word, too. My great-aunt Fannie, whose claims to fame included being in the Louisiana State Capitol the day Huey Long was assassinated, never wearied of telling tales about the man. She wasn’t particularly fond of him, or his politics, but she found his rise to power fascinating, not to mention his ability to hold a crowd.
On the Senate Floor, Long’s forte was the filibuster. Frustrating opponents and entertaining the gallery with his willingness to fill time with Shakespeare, shrimp and oyster recipes, and Constitutional analysis, he reached his zenith on June 12, 1935, when he spoke for 15 hours and 30 minutes while senators dozed at their desks.
Eventually, gallery visitors began sending notes to the floor to help him along with his extemporizing. The fresh material kept him going until 4 a.m., when he yielded the floor at last.
Fanny was a good story-teller, and she brought the man she called “that old devil” to life as she recounted his famous moment. Still, I couldn’t imagine doing anything for fifteen hours, let alone talking. “How could he do that?”, I asked. “How could he stand up there and talk for such a long time?” “Honey,” she said, “he just strung those sentences out, one word at a time.”
In 2013, Rand Paul took his own filibuster to the Senate floor: the first since Bernie Sanders spoke for eight and a half hours in 2010. Lacking the votes necessary to block John Brennan’s nomination as CIA Director, Paul decided to delay the vote: vowing, like Huey Long, to “speak until I can no longer speak.”
As the hours stretched on, people began to pay attention, regardless of party affiliation or political convictions. The sound of a single human voice, the willingness of an individual to stand before his colleagues and the world in order to speak his convictions, was strangely compelling.
At one point, someone following the filibuster on Twitter observed, “He’s been doing this for six hours – how in the world can he do that?” The answer the Twitter user received was the same as that offered by my aunt: Paul was doing it “one word at a time.”
The wisdom and appeal of the “one at a time” approach is undeniable. Recovering from addiction or grief, we take life one day at a time. Learning a new skill, we progress one step at a time. We tackle to-do lists one item at a time, and children even joke about eating an elephant one bite at a time. Sometimes, like the quilter at Ground Zero, we attempt to mend a ripped-apart life one stitch at a time.
Today, as the sense begins to spread that it’s America as a whole that is being torn apart, the thought of piecing things back together can seem laughable. Trust in government is unraveling. Nerves are frayed; fragile threads of communication have been snapped; entire blocks of history seem to have been misplaced or lost.
And yet, if we reattach our worn and tattered circumstances to the framework we’ve been given, there still is time to restore this old quilt of a country: one kind gesture at a time, one moment of accountability at a time, one recommitment at a time to values that have made this country great: honesty, self-reliance, generosity, freedom, civility and respect for the rights of others.
It’s time to start stitching.