As pioneers in the Modern Quilt movement for the past 14 years Bill and I learned a long time ago that the best place to teach is not the place where we’ll be known and admired but the place where people have never heard of us and where we might be able to convince veteran quilters to try something new. So when I was asked a year ago to be an instructor at the Shipshewana Quilt Festival in the heart of Indiana’s Amish country I was surprised and delighted. I planned the lectures and classes and signed the contract which was in a pile of 15 or so other contracts for similar gigs all over the US.
Last weekend we exhibited at the Chicago International Quilt Festival and an Amish woman (later I learned her name is Donna) and her silent, bearded husband came into our booth and bought two patterns, which delighted me to no end. “Oh, this is great!” I thought. “She likes our work and see that it crosses over to her aesthetic. Maybe Modern Quilting isn’t such a stretch in Shipshewana.” As she walked out of our booth carrying her Modern Quilt Studio tote bag she said, “You’re going to be in Shipshewana next week, right?” “Yes, I am,” I answered. “It’ll be fun,” she responded. I asked if she was in my class and she responded that she was an appraiser. We said goodbye and it made my day.
The night before I was to leave for Shipshewana I reviewed my notes and began packing my clothes. Panic set in. The entire gist of our approach to Modern Quilting is that we make quilts that are expressive of the time in which we live. Our focus is on the cultural influences of modernity. There’s a picture of a Dyson vacuum cleaner in our lecture and how color was used in its design. Would this totally be lost on the Amish in the audience? Choosing what to wear was another issue. In my circle I dress like an urban professional but in the summer most of my dresses stop at the knee and at least part of my arms are exposed. How do I fit in and be respectful to this crowd? And would there even be a crowd?
Being the first modern quilter to teach at anywhere has its pressures. If the class doesn’t fill it’s far too easy for the organizers to say, “Our clientele has no interest in Modern Quilting so we need never offer anything modern again.” I really wanted this to go well and was concerned that for the first time in recent memory that I might not be well received. I had also been in a car accident the day before in which an elderly man with driving restrictions had wrecked our car and would have seriously injured me had I not been as alert as I was. It shook me up for a variety of reasons. Add to that a respiratory infection which as an asthmatic means high levels of steroids and antibiotics and I was wiped out before I even backed the van out of the driveway.
I checked into the hotel and found my room. There was a bookmark on the bedside table that read:
In ancient times, there was a prayer for the “stranger within our gates.” Because this hotel is a human institution to serve people, and not solely a money-making organization, we hope God will grant you peace and rest while under our roof. May this room and hotel be your “second home.” May those you love be near you in thoughts and dreams. Even though we may not get to know you, we hope that you will be as comfortable and happy as if you were at home. May the business that brought you here prosper. May every call you make and every message you receive add to your joy. When you leave, may your journey be safe. We are all travelers. From “birth till death” we travel between the eternities. May these days be pleasant for you, profitable for society, helpful for those you meet, and a joy to those who know and love you best.
Wow. Just wow. There was a also lovely basket full of solid fat quarters, pecan crisps, Shipshewana peanut butter, and other treats as well as a handwritten note from someone on the housekeeping staff with the closing, “May God bless you.” Three unexpected acts of kindness. I can do this, I thought.
I walked into the first lecture and was stunned that the room was packed to standing-room-only capacity who burst into applause when I entered the room. I was stunned and very relieved. There were no Amish women there, which disappointed me but I was later told that they don’t usually mingle and that Donna, whom I had met in Chicago, “is the only one who really gets out there.” I gave my second talk on “What is Modern Quilting?” to another roomful of women and headed over to the famous Yoder’s Department Store next door to a book signing. Throughout the town I could hear the clomping of horses and noticed school-aged girls in traditional Amish garb and bonnets playing basketball, running around with friends, sometimes barefooted and driving buggies filled with younger siblings.
There were horse and buggies all over the parking lot and accommodations for them. It was my first time in Yoder’s and across the aisle was Yoder’s Hardware store that was packed with chicken feed, animal bedding, cast iron cookware, Splatterware, toys of a bygone era, massive wooden laundry racks and a sign that said, “Visit our canning aisle!” I was in another world that appealed so greatly for it’s simplicity, strong work ethic and pride in homekeeping.
I signed all of the books and magazines that I was asked and noticed all of the old wooden display pieces on the store floor filled with tatting supplies and toweling. There are 16,000 bolts of fabric, clothing, shoes, table linens and beautiful piles of men’s straw hats.
There was no Sponge Bob Square Pants or Mickey Mouse, no swimsuits and no jewelry. There were modest nightgowns and no slinky lingerie. No nail polish, push-up bras, Spanx, makeup or high-heeled shoes. The pressures on women are different here. I knew that I would never truly know the depth of them but it was refreshing to me to see a store in which there was no emphasis on sex appeal or pressures to look younger, hotter or more stylish. This community of Amish and Mennonites dresses for piety and modesty. How refreshing I thought.
I did the evening lecture to a full room and that went well. No Amish but lots of enthusiasm.
As I went to bed I thought about all of the hotel workers who are young Amish women working among the tourists whose ways were so different. It had to be hard to stay so focused on one lifestyle while working in the midst of another. The hotel was simple but spotless. Everyone was cheerful. I hadn’t seen anyone with a bad attitude all day. Service was fast and friendly. Was it their strong faith that made this place so beautifully run? Let’s be clear; this would not be an easy place to be an atheist, someone say transgender, or a non-Christian I’m guessing. There was no diversity of race or creed, but there was an optimism and focus on goodness that I had not seen in an entire town before.
The next day before I checked out of the hotel I wrote a note back to the housekeeping worker thanking her for her note and wishing God’s blessings on her in her work and in her home. I taught a workshop on improvisational piecing to a group ranging from 39 to 76 years old.
We had a 2-hr lunch break and I agree to spend an hour of it back at Yoder’s giving advice to anyone who wanted to shop for fabric for other projects. When I got there a line of students was waiting. I listened to each one’s ideas and helped them pull bolts, explaining why some fabrics would or wouldn’t work. A small crowd gathered watching me do this for a series of very different projects and someone from Yoder’s took photographs of me laying out dozens of bolts of fabric explaining the thinking behind my selections. The students said this was the highlight of the day for them. I had been the recipient of a lot of kindness. I wanted to pass it on. That’s how it works.
I finished the class and began to pack up the van with my computer, projector, books and quilts all organized in wheeled containers because I’m accustomed to doing it myself. A group of non-Amish young men working for the festival offered to help me load up. Having bought two cases of canning jars in a size not easily found in Chicago I took them up on it. The young man explained that helping people load their cars was part of a service project to earn money for a mission trip. “We’re going to Bemidji, Minnesota in a few weeks and are raising money to re-roof a church.” I handed him $20 hoping that it would by a few roofing tiles for the church. I thought about the problems we’ve had with the overly privileged high school girl next door who routinely dumps garbage bags of empty beer bottles over the fence into our yard and the Mexican lawn crews that dot our neighborhood while the able-bodied teens drive around in BMWs. Our 11-year-old daughter is the only kid I’ve ever seen mow a lawn in our neighborhood. It was nice to see kids in Shipshewana working period, yet alone raising money to re-roof a church.
As I pulled out of Yoder’s I decided that I would drive in silence to let the experiences of the prior 36 hrs seep in as deeply as I could. I didn’t want to lose any part of the memory. As I drove down the country highway there were a lot of horse and buggies driving on the side of the road in my direction.
There was an 18-wheeler trying to pass me, impatient that I was driving too slowly around the horses. I let the truck pass and gazed at each horse I drove by. They were not spooked. They were focused on their job and did it with such grace and dignity. Over a hill I noticed three buggies in a row and saw a sign that said, “Slow – Amish funeral.” I slowed and saw four simple wooden benches in a square under a large tree. The benches were filled with Amish in long-sleeved black clothing and white bonnets on this 85-degree day at 6pm. There was a young bearded man standing next to his very young wife who was holding a baby. They were living their lives with a commitment to their God and their community with a focus and dedication that I admired. How can I learn from them? They would laugh at the things that keep me up at night. I admitted to myself that the pressures of my life have shifted my focus and that I need to shift it back. Like those disciplined horses unbothered by 18-wheelers, I need to not succumb to the pressures of modern life that I don’t or shouldn’t truly care about.
As I approached the Skyway bridge back to Chicago I was caught in a downpour. With poor visibility I put on my hazard lights and drove at 25 mph back to the Big City.