At law school orientation, the Assistant Dean told us to “chop the wood in front of you.” When it seems like there is an entire forest to cut down, just concentrate on the first tree in front of you and don’t worry about the rest. I’m not exactly in favor of chopping down trees (although I love a free case of paper), but that phrase hits home for me in my most complicated and stressful times. I have invoked it countless times, particularly when tackling our debt.
Much like the woodpile that grows from singular focus on the most important wood in front of us, the women of Gee’s Bend created art out of necessity. They stitched together rags from worn clothes, one by one, and created beautiful quilts.
If you look at the pieces of the quilts before they were stitched together, you would probably think that they’re nothing special. You may even have thrown out rags like those recently. You may have rags like those in your closets and not know what to do with them. But when you need to cover the holes in your couch or keep your family warm at night, or sop up the oil dripping from underneath your car, and your finances are a zero sum game, you find a way to make do with anything.
The two pieces below are two of my favorites (although I have about a dozen “favorites”). These in particular, however, show the worn-out knees on the jeans that comprise them. Those knees worked hard before they became a quilt. Yet, smack dab in the middle is a blazing sun of warmth that those old knees can provide even in their old age.
You can see that these quilts had former lives as jeans or aprons or dresses or even previous quilts. They have stains that will never come out, no matter how hard you scrub. And the women of Gee’s Bend made quilts with pops of color or, like the one below, explorations of one or two colors. This is art at its most pragmatic.
Forgive me for waxing artful on this pragmatic blog. I was just recently reminded that, as long as we chop the wood in front of us and keep pushing ahead, eventually we’ll able to step back from it all and see the legacy that our hard work created. I’m not just talking about financial freedom. I’m talking about the knowledge that comes from cutting your expenses to the quick. The stripping away of the materialistic static. The reminders that the most beautiful things in life — love, friendship, art, nature, laughter, joy, all that good stuff — are free.
Photos from Smithsonian Magazine: Fabric of Their Lives.