The Wood Duck

All is still green, but the days are shortening and cooler than they were three weeks ago. Some days are still gorgeous, and on those days I bring my embroidery out to the verandah and set myself up, listening to an audiobook as my practiced fingers work the needle front and back, front and back.

The current embroidery is a counted-thread cross-stitch Celtic cross, a fairly demanding piece that I have properly mounted on a scroll frame to keep it stretched taut. The scroll frame in turn sits atop a stand that my neighbour John and I cobbled together (he had the band saw and the drilling experience) on this very verandah a few weeks ago.

As I sat at work the other day, a fairly elderly car drove slowly past my house, faltered, and came to an illegal stop (no parking this side of the street). An equally fairly elderly man got out, opened his trunk, and began to rummage among the contents, glancing over his shoulder at me as he did so. I sighed, pulled off my earphones, and prepared to be neighbourly.

“Wanna show you something. Need some help wi’ it,” he opened, and I went to look at what he held: a frame, perhaps 12 by 14 inches, enclosing an embroidery of a duck. “‘S a wood duck,” he told me. “I love them wood ducks.” Frame and embroidery had seen outdoor time, going by the superficial grot. Tenderly he brushed some plant matter from the canvas. “What is it?” he asked. “You were doing this embroidery stuff; I thought you’d likely know.”

I knew at once. Crewel embroidery, I told him: wool on what looked almost certainly like linen. One bit of a reed at the side hadn’t been finished (not enough yarn, perhaps) and I could see the pattern underneath: stamped, not drawn, so the duck had likely been a kit, linen with stamped design, lengths of crewel yarn pre-cut, and stitching instructions, long gone now. Kits like these are common start-out projects.

Now, I have been doing embroidery for a very long time. I first learned from the elderly neighbour who served as stand-in grandmother, when I was perhaps 7; I got serious about embroidery in my late teens and worked piece after piece of crewel for almost 30 years and then, for no good reason, simply stopped. The impulse to thread colour through needle and make patterns on cloth has only just re-seized me, years later, but all the old skills and craft-knowledge were there all along.

It was those skills and that knowledge that informed me with calm certainty that this duck was a truly crappy piece of embroidery. It was crude, uneven stitchery; the edges of the design segments failed to meet neatly, leaving gaps of exposed linen, and the back, if I could see it, was probably a mess. A neat back, free of starter knots, is the traditional hallmark of good-quality work.

But I didn’t say any of this. You don’t critique refrigerator art either. This was a piece that had absorbed a number of (probably struggling) hours by some unknown, but unpracticed, hand. “It looks just like a real wood duck,” the man said wonderingly. “I’m gonna clean it up, reframe it, hang it in my TV room.”

So instead of being snide about the thing, I made some gentle suggestions that involved dry cleaning, told him what the materials were (he made notes) so the dry cleaner would know what to do, and handed it back to him. He went back to his car without (thank God!) asking to see what I was working on myself.

I got back to tracking my tiny cross-stitches on the printed chart. It’s work that requires your undivided attention while leaving your soul free to wander away and poke around, which is why I love it. My brain tends to get terribly underfoot, so giving it some absorbing toy to play with is generally a good idea, spiritually speaking.

Yes, the wood duck was a mere shmatte, embroidery-wise. I know good work; this was not it. I don’t do work of the highest standard either, and it was probably the gap between my best skills and the best skills of the best embroiderers that had caused me to put my needle down, years ago. I cannot do fine white-work or cut-work or needle-made lace, the embroiderer’s equivalent of Olympic figure skating. I’m just not all that good with a needle. The fact that my own stuff — not made from kits but my own designs — is really quite good wasn’t quite good enough for my own anxious perfectionism. And the wood duck said something important about that very problem.

What made the piece valuable wasn’t its own merits but the fact that the man loved it — loved it enough to rescue it (as he’d told me) from a pile of discards, brush it off, and try to find someone who could tell him what to do for it. It was ugly. It was shabby. It was in serious need of proper cleaning. It was merely a mass-produced kit of the schlocky persuasion, and the designer had rotten taste in colour choices (trust me on that one). But it was loved and would be lovingly cared for.

Maybe its maker had loved it too, or at least had had hopes for it as her (almost certainly her) fingers struggled with a wool-laden needle. She probably didn’t know about the technique that is, to me, second nature. She had chosen this particular kit, quite likely because she like the man loved wood ducks. It’s so easy for us to mock dreams that aren’t up to our standards or tastes. I don’t much like the sentimental stuff that abounds among my stitching peers, but that doesn’t make their work less loved than mine.

We mock others for their failure to dream while ensuring that their dreams are out of reach, because we also fail to understand their realism and intelligence. We fail in humility and humanity — the great failing of “clear” thinkers like Ayn Rand — because we feel ourselves separate from and superior to (and also victimized by) those Other People, who value stuff we see as sentimental dreck and fail to value (indeed to worship) us and our clear, hard, sharp-edged vision of how the world should be.

The sun felt strong enough to ripen peaches, and my eyes had begun to cross like the stitches on my work, so I put aside the Celtic cross and went inside to retrieve the Fat Cat, who is much less demanding, being worked in big sloppy stitches (!) in fat pearl cotton (!!) of every bright hue I can lay hands on (!!!) on black polyester twill (!!!!!). This one breaks every rule in Mrs. Beeton’s fearsome Book of Needlework. It says “Shmatte? I’ll show you shmatte”. As embroideries go, it’s a slut.

But I love it and therefore it has value. God loves me and therefore I have value. God loves every schlub and schmendrick and man Jack and woman Jill who comes to set feet on God’s earth, even (perhaps even most) those whose needy humanity wraps itself around our ego’s aspirations and brings us, smarting, down to earth.

The Celtic cross I’m working may be a glory-to-God sort of thing, but the Fat Cat probably makes God grin, and I’m sure the crewel wood duck has a special place on the divine refrigerator door.

To see photos of the work click here.

Used by permission.

Molly Wolf plays hackysack with theology in Gananoque, Ontario, among the Thousand Islands. She lives with her resident offspring Ross and with Magnificat (aka Maggie), a sizable calico with tortitude, whose personality fits her name. She (Molly, not the cat) is the author of four collections of applied meditation and Scrambling towards Zion: A weekly essay on finding Godstuff in real life. (Reposted by permission ~ed.)

Past Posts