Brittany: A Half-Finished Life
The first time I ever saw Hungarian embroidery was the first time my new host mother took me on a tour of Pécs, the town where I would be living for the year. It hung in the window of the local souvenir shop, a cheery beacon in the newly post-communist landscape. It was the only thing cheery in town. In 1995, inflation was rampant, new construction had halted, the economy was in turmoil, the people downtrodden. It was everything you imagined in your worst Cold War nightmares. And I had just found my 18-year-old self in the epicenter of the once-communist block, without a single word of Hungarian, homesick, and slightly panic-stricken. I had just seen the house next door insulated with hay. Hay! And never mind the next-door neighbors who, when their house was condemned, moved their farm animals into the living room. I truly thought I was going to die in that godforsaken, backwards, barnyard-animal-in-house-dwelling world.
The embroidery stopped me in my tracks. “What is that?” I asked my host mother. “I want to learn how to do it.”
That weekend, my host father took me to the market, where I perused stalls of crisp white tablecloths covered in blue dye patterns. I chose one that didn’t look too complicated, as well as needles and embroidery thread, and headed home to my host mother and my first lesson.
The embroidery kept me sane during my first months in Hungary. When I was bored, I embroidered. When the family watched TV that I didn’t understand, I embroidered. I used it to wind down at the end of the day, to appear more social than I felt, as a way of connecting with a foreign culture. No one objected at all to the exchange student who sat quietly embroidering all day. And the more I fell in love with embroidery, the more I fell in love with Hungary.
It took me the entire year, but I finally finished that first tablecloth the week before I came home.
I have struggled to finish another one ever since. This week, while doing some early spring cleaning, I ran across two more I had started, but never completed. They were wadded up in a ball in the furthest reaches of my closet. I had forgotten they were there or that they’d ever existed.
The first I started as soon as I got home. I worked on it in my spare time all through college. It traveled back to Europe with me, then came all the way home to be abandoned when I started grad school and became too busy to work on it anymore.
The second I started several years ago, when we moved into this house and I decided I wanted to make a tablecloth for our table and the bright Hungarian colors wouldn’t fit in with the color scheme we’d chosen. Then I started work on my novel, the boys were born, and I didn’t have it in me to sew on a button, much less embroider a full-sized tablecloth.
When I rediscovered the tablecloths, it was with deep regret that they were still unfinished. Even more than my writing, embroidery feels like pieces of my soul made of cloth. Along with strands of my hair and pin pricks of my blood, I have woven my hopes and dreams and aspirations into the fibers. Both unfinished tablecloths represent a different period of my life when I didn’t know what was next on the horizon. The first, during a bright, colorful, chaotic time. The second, when my new life as a mother was right around the corner.
Lately I have been beating myself up for not accomplishing more. Like the delicious newness of a freshly printed tablecloth, I itch to start over. I want to do something bigger, more elaborate, and prove to myself and everyone else that I’m not squandering time, that I’m challenging myself, and that I’m not taking my life or my creativity for granted. I’ve also been acting like a person with an expiration date.
Yesterday, watching the Elizabeth Gilbert video, I was struck by a comment she made. She was talking about how quite possibly her best work was behind her, but then she added that she was 40 years old, and probably had 40 more years of work in her. I thought to myself, “And I’m only 32. I might have 50 years. Why am I killing myself to do it all today? I can save some of this mojo for tomorrow. It’s not going anywhere.”
Right now, I need to find a creative outlet where my mind can drift. An activity that requires no concentration. That I can pick up and put down as the mood strikes. As a creative mother, my soul will always be split in half. One half will be with my art, one half will be with my boys. What better use of my fractured time than finishing the partially-embroidered tablecloths from my (not quite) half-finished life?