You all know how special it is to have Grandma in your life. There are more treats with Grandma,and she’s a lot less strict than Mom. Even though my Grandma didn’t live in the same city as I did growing up, we saw her a lot. She was the first—and best—babysitter my parents called. She came to our performances and recitals, and we spent every major holiday together. My Norwegian Grandma grew up on a farm and married a farmer. She was accustomed to growing and cooking her own food and sewing for her family. In fact, my Grandma was a voracious creator of quilts. She sewed so many different kinds of quilts. Every bed in her house was topped by one of her creations. She gave my sisters and me quilts to mark special occasions.
I loved all of her fanciful work, but my very favorite kind of quilt was the plain utilitarian quilt with the funny name. She created these “crazy quilts” from leftover, irregularly-shaped pieces of fabric. We had many of those quilts. Some became dog blankets or picnic blankets or beach blankets. Some favorites were worn straight through. Whenever I used one of these sturdy quilts, I found myself fascinated and transfixed by the different pieces of fabric. They were all so unique. I wondered if one piece had been rescued from an old shirt she sewed for my grandpa, another gleaned from a remnant of a leftover flour sack, or maybe another secretly taken as a scrap from a neighbor’s wedding dress or something else equally intriguing. My Grandma’s quilts were ever present in my childhood. The idea of snuggling up with one is still such a cozy idea, and I am grateful that it stays with me.
Fast forward many years later, and I was enrolled in graduate school training to be an art therapist. We were required to work at different facilities while we studied so we could practice what we were learning and bring that knowledge back to our colleagues. My first placement was at a domestic violence shelter. Women and children were arriving—and, unknown to me, leaving—all the time. The shelter already employed one art therapist to lead group art therapy with the children so, as a newcomer, I was working on ground that was already tilled. The staff seemed friendly and understanding of how art could help these families in crisis.
Even so, starting somewhere new required adjustments. I had a lot to learn. I cleaned up the art room that had been used as storage closet and a staging area for donations. I attended staff meetings and familiarized myself with what many of these families had in common. Quite spontaneously, an open-ended and cooperative way of working evolved. The experienced staff became my mentors, and the children under my care enthusiastically and intuitively worked with paint and clay, some revealing the very scary stories that remained with them.
As I adjusted to the newness of the work in the shelter, I stayed focused on the children. The children would be attending new schools, and I helped them assemble backpacks full of school supplies so they would have what they needed. Because the children had to learn to live in a shelter with other families, I designed a coloring book to help introduce the shelter’s rules in a fun and engaging way. Children and teens worked willingly and enthusiastically with the art, and I was so taken with this give-and-take process of witnessing the children’s art making that I forgot something important—crucial, really.
I forgot that the families at the shelter were there only temporarily. One day. A week. Two months. I forgot that they were there because they were leaving one home and on their way to another. I had been focused on establishing trust with the children, and found I had a very difficult time adjusting to families’ leaving. Sometimes there was notice but, oftentimes, there was not. I had been at the shelter for a few short weeks when one family’s hasty departure absolutely blindsided me. My first thought was that I hadn’t said goodbye to the teen with whom I had been working. “But, but, but… Analee (not her real name) wasn’t finished,” I screamed to myself in silent protest. Alas, artwork left unfinished was an inherent end product of working with women and children in shelters.
This difficulty was foremost in my mind and heart when I presented an experience to my graduate class. Our homework was meant to explore what challenges we faced at our facilities. I was in the midst of feeling a little sad and confused about my work. I struggled with the recent realization that the time I had with the children was limited and outside of my control. I doubted myself. I had begun to think of my time with the children as “scraps of time.” In fact, when I thought of scraps, I thought of the bags of leftover fabric I had kept from Grandma’s years of sewing. To bridge this idea, I presented my class with mounds of various fabric pieces and asked them to create whatever they wanted.
After the experience, my instructor and classmates shared what this creative experience had been like for them. Each one spoke about what fun it was. For some, it reminded them of time with their own grandmothers. One woman compared the activity to a treasure hunt. No one turned up their noses at what I offered. This was a revelation for me. Everyone enjoyed how the fabric felt and the discovery that ensued. They were delighted with their little treasures. I had been so stuck in my own thoughts about time that I was missing the potential for real and meaningful interaction with the children. Instead of convincing my class how inadequate my time with the children was, they convinced me that I could look differently at time. I began to see my time with the children living at the shelter for what it was: complete, a treasure.
This experience changed my perspective. I flipped how I viewed time. The time I spent at the shelter simply was. It had value as it was. Labels like ”scrap” and “unfinished” weren’t helpful, and they missed the point. Each time I met with a child at the shelter I had an opportunity to symbolically meet them “right where they were.” Because I knew the temporary nature of this crisis work had more to teach me, I chose a different shelter population for my next placement. As a beginner, I had been so focused on what I wasn’t able to give, that I was missing what I had given.
I recall this story with you in mind, dear reader. I know you are busy, and I know your time is precious. Likewise, I would suggest to you that the openings you have in your day are enough to claim for yourself. There are potential treasures to be found. The “there’s not enough time
to . . .” may just be a bag full of velvet and childhood prints standing ready and waiting to be discovered.