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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. finembroidNo 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.

bv1The 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. bv2

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?

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. cathy #

    thank you, brittany. these are beautiful. you reminded me of a long forgotten craft i did while my boys were little and i needed a beautiful way for my mind to drift, too. i used to handroll beeswax candles. i would get lost in the scent and the perfect formation of row upon row of bee-made hexagons.

    not the intricate work of your embroidery, but a good way for my mind to wander unfettered.

    February 26, 2009
  2. Liz #

    I love that Ivory-beige one with the white embroidery! It is just gorgeous!

    February 26, 2009
  3. Such patience you have, Brittany — this embroidery is a real art. Just beautiful. Please share your progress on the half-finished projects! (And above all else, keep them away from doot!)

    February 26, 2009
  4. oh my gosh, i love your story … love that you were in hungary … love to imagine hungarian tv watchers … love the colors … love that they are started, lost, found, and might get finished …. those are lovely metaphors for your life …. and i hope you make many more …. they are very lovely …. and the bright colorful ones would look perfectly grand in my hodge podge colorful house!

    February 26, 2009
  5. Kristine #

    Beautiful post! I love the designs and wish I had the ability to create something that beautiful.

    February 26, 2009
  6. Jen #

    Thoroughly wonderful post — and impressive projects!!! I would love to see more as it happens. Lovely insights into concentration-free creativity, too. I can really relate to waht you’re getting at here (exact same reason I took up beadwork again) though I have to tell ya, if I were to try embroidery I would certainly have to concentrate! My needle skills just ain’t that good 🙂

    February 27, 2009
  7. brittany, my soul sister, you! this is such a beautiful story. i love how the embroidery helped you come to love your adopted home for the year. i’ve been a closet needleworker since my mother first taught me to needlepoint when i was about 10 years old. i’ve done all sorts of needlepoint, embroidery, cross-stitch, petit-point, you name it. i recently came across a piece i finished in 2005 and never framed, so i just got it framed and will add it to my current redecorating project.

    i have so many needlework books and patterns i truly could open my own store, but i just can’t give them up. when my mom died, i ended up with all her stuff as well to add to mine and still can’t let it go. i also have a 8 foot (yes 8 foot) by 2.5 foot needlepoint runner that my mother started before she died; it’s about 1/4 of the way done. i have all the yarn in a big bag and the canvas rolled up a piece of a working loom (yeah, it’s that big that it needs its own loom). i haven’t done any needle work in several years because i have such a hard time grasping the needle (i have rheumatoid arthritis–i can create the jewelry thanks to ergonomic tools), but i just can’t let any of it go! i’m sure it will end up with my girls when i pass along.

    thanks for sharing this inspiring story. while you may not be writing a novel right now, you’ll still writing lovely pieces here.

    February 27, 2009
  8. Thanks for the kind words, guys.

    For those of you who wish you could do this, it really is a lot less complicated than it looks. It basically boils down to two stitches (stem and satin). One summer I volunteered a morning at a local girl scout camp and taught a bunch of little girls how to embroider in about an hour. I can give lessons over email, too…

    It saddens me that handwork is becoming a dying art. In Hungary, only the oldest generation still does it. Their daughters know how to do it, but don’t, and my generation thinks it’s old-fashioned. I guess it’s pretty much the same in the US. I don’t know many people my age who sew.

    Kelly, I think it’s time that you taught your girls some needlework. I started sewing little projects at their age, and it will give you a head start so that sometime in the not-too-distant future the three of you can finish your mom’s tablerunner. 😛

    February 27, 2009

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