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‘The very best of me’

First slide

I had a dream last night about ventilators. In my dream, the machines were fueled by squares of brightly colored quilting cotton. These days, I am making masks  —  dozens and dozens of masks. I love to sew. The smell of quilting cotton under a hot iron is one of my favorites  —  right up there with incense and chrism. Unlike some of my quilting friends who are quietly hating the task while sewing hundreds of masks, I’m actually enjoying the process. I like to pair fabrics to make the mask pretty. I like the skills involved in pleating and topstitching. All in all, it’s not a bad way to suffer through a global pandemic.

Sewing masks offers one plenty of time to think and pray. When I finish, I have a mask or even a pile of masks. Masks are not the most satisfying products. They aren’t heirloom quilts or birthday dresses for little girls or curtains to hang in my living room. They are utilitarian devices that remind us of a deadly virus. They will be worn and washed repeatedly until they no longer serve their purpose. Then they will be discarded without a backward glance. Any joy in sewing masks comes from relaxing into the process and in knowing that they serve a purpose.

Truth be told, it’s when I get up from the machine that the trouble starts. It’s then that the thoughts rush hard and fast and I have a desperate urge to do something  —  anything  —  to control. I keep asking my children who they want to be when this is over. I’m trying to encourage them to use this time well. I want to make things better. I want to make my kids better. I want to make myself better.

But maybe now is the time for just being. Maybe now is for being humble enough to acknowledge that we can’t make it better. We can only live it well in this present moment.

As one day moves into the next and all the lines drawn between them grow fuzzy, as pajama pants become 24/7 wear, it’s easy to lose sight of the process. It’s easy to forget that these days are our life. They aren’t just days we pass on the way to some other time, or even days spent improving ourselves to prepare for some time in the future. These are days with value unto themselves.

I walk a trail in my neighborhood that runs around the perimeter of dozens of backyards. There are so many projects happening right now. People are planting and building and painting. They are using this time to get stuff done. It’s admirable. And then again, it’s exhausting. It’s an indictment of our inability to be still, even when the world all but grinds to a halt. We are compelled to produce. Some of us cannot sit still; we have to contribute, to be useful, to perform. It’s especially disconcerting to lose the bearings of typical ways to measure usefulness. We cannot settle into just being. We cannot stop moving long enough to ponder the reality of this present moment.

Who do I want to be, right now?

How do I want to live today? Can I be content to sew 9-by-8 rectangles of fabric, focused on the contemplative rhythm of creating something simple and useful? Can I build a deck in my backyard because I like the way the sun feels on my face and the hammer feels in my hand? Can my true preparation for the new normal be living today more authentically?

There is so much we don’t know, so much we can’t assume. These days call for humility and patience. They call for genuine spiritual transformation that cannot be measured in terms of creative productivity. We have been called to slow our movements, to limit our reach, to focus almost exclusively on what is close and near. In that slowness, our senses sharpen. What matters most can come into focus.

I sew the masks because the smell of cotton is intoxicating, because I love the rhythm of a needle pulling thread, because the simple act of a simple sewing project is all that is required of this present moment. This small task is the best use of today. This small offering may turn out to be lifesaving, or it might just keep someone from getting a dirty look at the UPS store. It matters not as I sit at my sewing machine. What matters is that, in this moment, I gave this humble act the very best of me.

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, writes from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020