Things Left Undone

I don’t think the sewing machine motor is supposed to shoot sparks.

I had dug out fabric squares from years ago, played with color combinations for a nine-patch quilt square, settled on nine squares’ worth with the intention of making potholders as gifts, completed the first potholder and bestowed it, started piecing the other eight in assembly-line strips of three, completed one full square, and on the second square — the thread jammed.

The engine revs, the needle goes up and down, but the fabric remains stubbornly in one spot. I consulted the manual’s troubleshooting pages and studied diagrams to make sure it’s threaded correctly and the bobbin is wound right. I let it rest for a few days. Trying again: still no movement in front. When I peer around to make sure the belt is still running, I see tiny lightning bolts inside the motor.

The next thing to do is call my father, who diligently maintained this Singer console during the twenty-some years my mother used it. And the first thing he will ask is whether I have oiled it regularly, as he has occasionally reminded me in the twenty-some years I have owned it. And I will have to disappoint him by saying no. (“But I have changed the oil in my car, Dad!”)

So some friends and family will not be receiving potholders for Christmas. Nor will my doctoral-student daughter receive the quilt I started piecing when she was in high school. And that’s all it takes for my inner scold to start reciting a litany of projects abandoned, books unread, the perpetual to-do list, the chronic gaps between intention and accomplishment . . .

And this is why my Christmas mix tape (made in 2003 as a gift to coworkers) begins with the peppy overture to the Nutcracker suite, all full of bright anticipation, and makes its way to the Alison Krauss lament “Get Me Through December.”

* * *

Take no thought for things left undone.

My introduction to Jesus’ first public address, the Sermon on the Mount, came not through reading the words in the Bible but hearing and then singing a version of them, in the form of a church camp song, “Seek Ye First.”

A Google search for lyrics turns up many hits. Most have verses we did not sing at Camp Concern in the woods of western Pennsylvania in the 1970s, but none seem to have the verse now playing on my mental iPod: Take no thought for things left undone, don’t worry about tomorrow, live each moment one by one, allelu, alleluia.

Other verses stick closer to the text, and it’s possible this verse has been judged a relic of that time, too free-spirited. But it does contain the seed of what Jesus is said to have said, repeatedly: Do not worry.

Finish wrapping the gifts to be mailed . . . box them . . . mail them . . . do not worry. Wash the dishes . . . do the laundry . . . change the cat litter . . . do not worry. Seek and find those last few gifts . . . pay the bills . . . answer that e-mail . . . do not worry. Bake the rest of the cookie dough . . . make the dish for the potluck . . . don’t eat too much . . . do not worry. Stop the paper for a few days . . . tip the carrier . . . pack the suitcase … do not worry. Make year-end charitable donations . . . make a nose out of Play-Doh . . . make up with that wounded friend . . . do not worry.

This season might be the closest thing our culture has to a communal deadline.

* * *

Most of these 3 ½-inch squares of fabric were cut by my mother long ago. Some of them went into a lap quilt for an elderly relative. Some went into the first quilt I made. When I went digging for them, I found a number of mom’s things left undone: a baby’s quilt in shades of peach and medium blue and pale teal, the top pieced, a cantaloupe-colored piece of flannel cut for the backing. A toddler-sized dress, the bodice smocked but the pieces unassembled. Pieces for a grade-schooler’s jumper, in a blue gingham print with words and pictures that evoke a primer but also can be read as imperatives: Act. Cry. Dance. Eat. Feed. Gaze. Jump. Kneel. Look. Push. Run. Sing.

Photo: Laura Lynn Brown

We seldom see each other’s things left undone, and we sure don’t want others to see ours. We pretend we’re finished works in public, our seams finished, our loose threads neatly trimmed. Exposing the messy undersides is one of the vulnerabilities of living with others — and one of the graces of being intimately known. To see someone’s unfinished bundles and assure “Don’t worry, I love you anyway; I love you for, not despite, the plans you haven’t finished yet” is one of the best gifts we can give, or receive, at any time of year.

* * *

Under the tree there’s something for nearly everyone on my list, and a couple more shopping or making days left. And the pleasure of seeing gifts received has already begun.

Instead of potholders color-coordinated with their kitchens, the friends in my Sunday lunch bunch got little sacks of gingerbread cookies — or ginger bears, said my friend who worries too much, and whose wife pretended she’s not going to share the cookies with him.

Photo: Laura Lynn BrownThe one completed potholder, the prototype, was given and received, to and by someone who is neither family nor friend, but who has seen me at my messiest and walked with me, encouraging, nudging, cautioning, teasing, teaching, loving. She examined the wrapping and felt the package, an unhurried overture, surmising it was cloth, guessing at what might be within.

Then she tore in like Cookie Monster on a Toll House.

She recognized the era of the fabrics and delighted in the blue jean remnant on the underside: one of my dad’s back pockets.

* * *

There’s more I want to say, meant to say. But I’m out of time.

* * *

I’m still not sure what gift I will give my father. I talked to him during one of the sewing machine’s days of rest, but somehow I forgot to mention its snags. “I’m a man of no needs,” he said when I asked what’s on his wish list.

“What about wants?”

“No wants either.”

Maybe my presence will be gift enough, going home at Christmastime for the first time in twenty-some years. I’ll knock, and the door will be opened to me.

The house will fill with family. We’ll unwrap what we’re given. We’ll see each other in our pajamas. And if we let each other, we’ll snip a few loose threads and bind unfinished seams.

Photo: Laura Lynn Brown

Laura Lynn Brown starts much more than she finishes in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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