Archive for February, 2011

Learning to Sew

A special occasion* is coming up, for which I’ll need a dress.

Up ‘til now, when circumstances have called for a pretty dress, I have simply gone out and bought one (or, when unable to quickly find something that meets my three requisites of 1. Colorful; 2. Inexpensive; and 3. Comfortable, I’ve borrowed dresses from friends, or from my sister). This time, though, I am learning to sew.

Making a dress, I’ve come to learn, is not nearly as quick and easy as buying one, nor as economical as borrowing. In fact, it is time and resource-intensive, tedious, and physically uncomfortable. It cramps your neck, strains your vision, and makes your fingers ache. It also gives you a newfound appreciation (bordering on reverence) for the ease of online shopping.

But it is also deeply, deeply satisfying.

The dresses I’ve bought and borrowed over the years have had perfectly straight hems, flawless stitching, creases and zippers and clasps in all the right places. This dress—well, the parts of it that I’ve worked on myself**—has crooked seams, frayed edges, and visible pencil marks. But I think it will be the most beautiful garment I’ve ever worn. What sets this dress apart form any other is, in part, the nature of the occasion for which it is being created. But it’s also different in that when I behold it, I don’t just notice the color, and the shape, and the shimmer of the silk. I see the big carboard box awaiting me at the Roseau General Post Office, filled with orange-toned silk chiffon my mother selected, lovingly and painstakingly, from a fabric store in Portland, and express-mailed to me in Dominica. I see the livingroom full of friends gathered around our makeshift sewing table, taking turns threading the needle, pinning the fabric, snipping the loose strings. I see our six young neighbors crowded at the window, chewing on stalks of sugar cane, watching us pin and cut the fabric on my bedroom floor. I feel the crink in my neck, the stiffness in my fingers, the surge of excitement when I first put my foot to the sewing pedal. I hear the whir of the machine, the lilt of Francillia’s laughter as she expertly stitches the bodice to the skirt, the reassurance of Christine’s voice telling me that every mistake has a remedy. I smell the vanilla cake Marvis and Dillon baked to nourish the hungry sewers, and the styling grease Kimberly used to plait our hair during sewing breaks. This dress will ever be an invoker of memory.

It’s the difference, I guess, in the view from a mountaintop when you’ve ridden up there in a cable car…or when you’ve climbed.

Beauty resides not only in the view, but in the process. And this dress-making process, I’ve come to realize, is sort of a microcosm of my experience in Dominica, or perhaps that of any Pioneer…or even, I’d venture to guess, that of any endeavor that involves process, creation, innovation. There will never seem to be enough time, or enough resources, and you may find yourself attempting—literally or metaphorically—to make a dress in less than ideal sewing conditions (think frequent power outages, a faulty sewing machine, bat droppings falling from the rafters, the neighborhood kids running towards the silk chiffon with mango juice dripping from their chins and fingers, etc). Adjustments are necessary and inevitable. A sense of humor is crucial. And patience, flexibility and humility must be the watchwords, if any progress is to be made.

Speaking of humility. I have been forced to acknowledge that sewing is a skill that does not come easy to me. I sort of thought it might—that my ability to write calligraphy and cut paper neatly would transfer to the sewing table. But I quickly learned that cutting silk is nothing like cutting construction paper, and a sewing machine is slightly more complex than an ink pen. But the nice thing about being flagrantly inept at something is that you have nowhere to go but forward…and the process of learning and gradually strengthening your skill is so very rewarding.

Aside from baking banana bread and (a very recent development) shelling almonds with a cutlass, I possess lamentably few practical skills. The experience of living in a community where hands are put to excellent use (cooking callaloo, weaving baskets, peeling yams, building houses, plaiting straw, catching crayfish, chopping firewood, carving calabash) has created in me a strong yearning to increase my skill set. I’d been considering the idea of learning to sew for a while now, but would likely have never gotten around to it were it not for the encouragement of a dear friend (who will also be participating in the upcoming special occasion). And it just so happens that I am currently sharing a home with an exceptionally good seamstress, who was thrilled with the idea of teaching me to sew, and making a dress in the process. Thus far, she has been the most wonderful instructor: gentle and encouraging, willing to explain and re-explain every step of the process, calm when I sew the wrong pieces of fabric together, or spill coffee on the silk lining, or break the thread for the eighty-third time. Thank you, Christine, for this dress, and for this experience.

I will post some pictures of this work-in-progress now…but my hope is that you’ll get to see the finished product in “real life” (which is, of course, also a work-in-progress). And when you do get the chance to see the dress, I trust you’ll pay no heed to the irregular stitching, and lopsided seams.


*I plan on sharing with you a little more about this special occasion in next week’s posting, or maybe the week after.

**Francillia and Christine, both accomplished seamstresses, have done all the trickier parts…and those stitches are flawless.

My bedroom floor is our sewing table

Trying (unsuccessfully) to cut a straight line

Emelda tries on the lining

The bodice is beginning to take shape

The neighbors watching us work from the window

Francillia sews while Christine studies the pattern

First time at the machine (concentrating REALLY intently!)

Marvis and Dillon baked banana cake for everyone

Roushy joined us for the sewing party via skype!


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A tale of two Mothers

Verily, in Thee will we find comfort and strength…

With your permission, dear reader, I am about to share with you another story of a mother who lost her child.

As I did in the previous entry, I’ll change the names of those featured in this posting, too, because the subject matter is once again sensitive…and I want to treat it with reverence. I wonder, sometimes, if I should even post these stories…but, as I prayerfully consider what to write, and what to share with you, I am reminded that it’s these most “sensitive” subjects that are the real stuff of life—the stuff that brings us to our knees, and the stuff that stirs our spirits to rise, phoenix-like, from the depths of our despair. The stuff that makes us weep, and the stuff that makes our hearts sing with joy.

Of what else can one write?

I have another hesitation in sharing these stories, though…and that is that I won’t do them justice. That I won’t capture the language that befittingly conveys their poignancy, and heartache, and beauty. Hand of the Cause of God Abu’l-Kazim Faizi has asked, “How can seas of emotion be contained in chalices of words, though they be of gold?” The poets are those, I suppose, who possess the chalices of gold—limited, still, in their ability to contain, but endowed with the power to make that cupful of sea shimmer.

Mine is, I think, a chalice of copper. Unlike the poets, I don’t know how make language become luminous. But—in my very limited knowldege of metal—something I understand about copper is that, though it doesn’t possess the luster of gold, it has the ability to conduct heat. And this, I think, is why I feel compelled to write. While I cannot hope to convey they poetry of these experiences in Dominica—in life—I can strive to impart an ember of their warmth.

(Thanks for allowing me that preface. I will now pour another cup of tea, and try tell you about the mother…well, the two mothers. And with Ruby’s mother, who I wrote about last month, they are three.)


Lara is a 23-year-old mother of two beautiful sons. She is the pre-school teacher for the southern hamlets of the Carib Territory, and has recently begun serving as a Junior Youth Animator. She loves to read, and she loves to eat Milky Way candy bars—but both are luxuries she’s rarely able to indulge in. Lara is also 8 months pregnant, with a third son. She went in for a scan two weeks ago, and the doctors told her that, as the baby she carried was severely underweight, she’d have to remain in the Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH…a place that has become quite familiar to me these past two months) for the duration of her pregnancy.

This is a very challenging situation for Lara. Her two boys are young—ages 2 and 4—and though the children are in the loving care of their grandmother while Lara is away, she misses them desperately. And she worries. Is the two year old getting enough milk? Is the four-year-old practicing his alphabet every day? Do they know how much their mommy wishes she could hold them?

Her sleep has been troubled, Lara told us, partly because the hospital bed is stiff, and she’s unaccustomed to being in a room by herself. Mostly, though, what keeps her awake is the uncertainty of how she will ever manage to pay off her hospital bill. PMH charges 50 Eastern Caribbean Dollars per night, which means that, after a month in the hospital (plus the delivery fee, and other inevitable costs) her total bill could amount to more than her annual salary.

Her first week in the hospital, Lara said, was one of unbearable loneliness. But on the seventh day, Mary arrived.

Mary is a banisher of loneliness. In her presence, one feels an immediate surge of warmth, of friendship. She looks you straight in the eye when she talks to you, and when she asks “How are you?” it is not social convention, but a genuine inquiry as to the state of your inner condition. And she is not merely seeking to know if you are fine, but to discover how she might be able to be of service to you. Fittingly, Mary works as a coordinator of a public service program that provides in-home early childhood education, and coaching for their parents. She is also the mother of three sparkly-eyed children, and a facilitator of various community activities.

Mary joined Lara in the maternity ward of the Princess Margaret Hospital beacuse, in the sixth month of her pregnancy, she went into labor…and after an emergency Caesarean section, baby Grace was born into the world. Before Mary had a chance to hold her, the child was placed into an incubator and connected to tubes and machines. Mother and daughter would not be returning to the Carib Territory that night… and for the seven days that followed, the Princess Margaret Hospital became their home.

Mary slept very little that week. As often as the nurses would allow—and ignoring the searing pain in her abdomen from the operation—she’d sit beside the incubator that was her daughter’s crib, reaching her hand through the opening to touch Grace’s feather-soft cheeks, listening to the beep of the heart moniter, whispering prayers. Mary would have spent every moment there, but even nurseries have visiting hours…so when she couldn’t be by her daughter’s side, Mary would shuffle down to the pre-natal ward, in her slippers and purple nightgown, and visit Lara.

To pass the long hours of waiting, of nervous anticipation, the two young women gave each other manicures and pedicures. They combed one another’s hair, told stories, made each other laugh. They ate their plates of hospital food side by side, took turns calling friends in the Carib Territory for news from home, prayed for one another’s babies.

The two mothers called us Wednesday night, knowing we’d be in town the following day, asking that we bring them mangoes, and a camera…Mary hadn’t yet taken a photograph of baby Grace. They’d both seemed in high spirits during the phone call. But when we arrived at the maternity ward the next day, there was a heaviness in the air, and in the mothers’ eyes. Baby Grace, we learned, was struggling. She’d held strong until earlier that day, and was even breathing on her own for a little while, but had needed a blood transfusion…and it seemed her body was having a difficult time adjusting to the foreign platelettes. Grace’s lungs had stopped breathing on their own, Mary told us, and the baby had to be reconnected the oxygen machine.

“Pray,” Mary asked us. “Please pray. I don’t know what else we can do.”

We had brought with us a special prayer book for women, “Wings of Prayer,” and we gave it to Mary, along with a compilation of Bahá’í Writings, called “Fire and Gold,” on finding strength and blessings in life’s struggles. We prayed together, seated on that stiff hospital bed. And then Mary returned to the nursery, camera in hand, to take some photographs of her baby girl.

In the middle of the night, my phone rang. It was Lara, crying. She didn’t have to say a word.

By the time we reached the Princess Margaret Hospital the following morning, Mary and her husband had already gone. We met them at their home later in the afternoon, a home—I realized—that I hadn’t visited enough this year, but from which I’d always perceived the fragrances of unity, of collaboration. Mary’s husband was at the stove frying fish; one of the daughters was holding her little brother; the other daughter was seated beside the bed where her mother lay resting. Mary sat up to greet us as we approached. Her countenance was calm, her gaze steady. As we knelt beside her, and held her hands, she told us about her last moments with her baby daughter. They had been precious moments, sacred moments….moments, Mary said, that will remain with her always. There, beside the glowing incubator, Mary had sung to her child. She’d repeated the prayer “O Lord, Help Thou this daughter of the Kingdom to be exalted in both worlds…” over and over, as she stroked Grace’s tiny hand. Back in her room, she read passages from “Fire and Gold,” and felt, she said, oceans of strength coarsing over her, through her. She knew, then, that she and her daughter, and all the mothers and all the daughters, were being held by the Greater Hand.

It has been a week, now, since Grace’s passing. During these past seven days, Christine and I have visited Mary often. Every time we come, she updates us about Lara. Mary has called her every morning and evening, just to check in, just so she won’t be lonely, or discouraged. “You must keep your spirits up,” Mary tells her. And she tells us that we must pray for this baby, for Lara’s strength. Mary has been advised to remain in bed for the time, as her stitches have not yet healed, and the wound is still so painful that she’s unable to pick up her one-year-old son. But from that bed, Mary is reaching out to her sister Lara. From that bed, she is serving.

Yesterday, she put together a care package for us to bring to Lara in the hospital. In it, she placed some bars of chocolate, some romance novels, a newspaper, nailpolish. And then she asked me to remove a large blue bag from the shelf. She instructed me to open it, and that everything deemed suitable for a boy was to be added to Lara’s care package. I realized, as I removed the tiny socks, the pastel booties, the cotton blankets, that these precious garments were to have been Grace’s. We folded each of them neatly, setting the pinks aside, but placing the blues and greens and soft yellows in the package for Lara…for Lara’s son. Mary added several packets of diapers to the box. “These were given to me by Ruby’s mother last month,” she told me, “after Ruby died. Grace only used a few of them…so let’s give the rest to Lara’s baby.”

I battled against tears as I helped Mary assemble that package, and wondered at how her eyes remained dry. “I’ve done my crying,” she said. “Now it’s time to be of use.” I began to understand, as we folded the last article of clothing and placed it in the box, that Mary wasn’t supressing her grief, or ignoring it…she was channeling into service, into acts of love.

As we beheld Lara’s care package, brimming over with gifts, Mary motioned to the items in the box. “We can think of these as my blessings,” she said. “I have been given so many in life. How can I not share them with my sister?”

* Lara is still in the hospital, with an estimated due date of February 28th. She is progressing in her study of Ruhi Book 5, “Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth,” and has been memorizing prayers. We’re also trying to keep her supplied with novels and Milky Way candy bars. Mary, in the midst of planning a funeral from her bed, still calls Lara every morning and evening.  She is reading “A Thief in the Night,” and is already planning a community devotional. Baby Grace’s funeral will be held tomorrow. Please keep these heroic women, and their children, in your prayers.

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Next week…. :)

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