What I’ve Learned While Stuck in Malawi

I have started joining Emily P. Freeman with her quarterly reflections on what she’s learned from that quarter before moving into the next. She does them somewhat seasonally rather than strictly quarterly based on the calendar. Interestingly, this season of June through August typically coincides with our annual trip back to the States to visit friends and family. This year had different plans.

As such, we spent the last three months “stuck” in Malawi as the airport and borders remained closed due to COVID-19. There has been plenty to reflect on over the past few months. We have had several new experiences, as well as a few moments of reckoning with reality. Here are a few takeaways in no particular order.

Hibernation is a natural response to cold weather.

We have never stayed in Malawi during its winter months. However, due to COVID-19, our travel plans were interrupted indefinitely. As such we had to adjust to the uncharacteristically chilly weather we normally aren’t privy to.

At first it was a nice change from the often oppressive heat. However, as it got cooler and cooler, the concrete walls of our semi-detached home seemed to retain the cold in unprecedented ways. The homes here are not equipped with central heating. Though some have a fireplace, ours does not.

So, most mornings I would don multiple layers and bundle up under quilts with a mug of hot coffee. The only trouble was I tended to stay that way most of the day. It dawned on me that hibernation is a natural response to cold weather. Suddenly, I found myself delighted at how quilt making proved extremely beneficial for such a phenomenon.

Fourth of July feels weird when it’s cold.

As an addendum to the previous point, we have also never spent an American Independence Day outside of America. Stateside celebrations, historically, have included shorts and tank tops, barbecues, ice cream, and fireworks. This year, I wore a chunky sweater and bundled up under a quilt. We did have a bit of a barbecue and even some backyard fireworks, but they’re just not the same when it’s cold outside.

Maybe all of this contributes towards why I finally felt compelled to make a flag quilt. It’s been on my mind for a few years, but somehow the combination of being away from my home country, knowing the turmoil it has been facing, and experiencing cooler weather gave me the push to do it.

The result is a prayer quilt. Verses from Romans 8 are stamped onto 15 hexies and scattered throughout. It comforted me to stitch it, and gave me hope that even if the state of things aren’t what I wish they were, it remains the land that I love.

I bloom like a flower in warm weather.

In contrast to the chilly weather of June and July, August arrived with a hint of warmth in the air. It was subtle at first, only emerging every few days. But, as I sit writing this, the sun is out and the breeze is warm and inviting. Malawi is full of flowering trees, and as they start to bloom, I can feel myself doing the same.

If quilting served the dual purpose of warmth and occupation during the chilly months, as the weather warms I can feel a shift. I feel inspired for new beginnings and waking up old WIPs that have been hibernating long enough. I’ve always been a warm weather person, but these days I am struck by the ways my climate controlled first world upbringing has numbed me to natural ebb and flow of nature’s seasons. I quite like this new revelation. 

Large scale projects are my jam right now.

For some reason, large scale projects born out of scraps or what I have one hand have a redemptive quality to them. I hadn’t planned on several of my recent quilts when I packed up my fabric and carted it across the Atlantic. Yet here they are, telling a story of beauty from ashes, and I am leaning into it with all that I have these days. 

I think it’s helped that I’ve become extremely selective about which quilts I actually start. After realizing from my previous quarterly reflection that 3 active WIPs is my happy place, I have maintained more consistent focus and a sense of forward motion. I don’t always have this, but I’ve been doing my best to “listen” to my quilts, as well as my inner creative.

I am choosing to pursue the quilts, fabrics and designs that bring me the most joy. If a quilt isn’t bringing me joy, I remove it from the “active” roster and consider something new or pulling out an older WIP. In fact, I engaged in this lovely endeavor over the weekend. I made progress on an old WIP, started a brand new one, and finished one I started in July. It feels wonderful.

I’m a quilt finisher.

There’s really no unpretentious way of saying this so I’m appealing to your most gracious perceptions of this statement. I love starting new projects, and I don’t think I’d be a proper quilter if I didn’t. But, I’ve realized during this extended COVID-19 season that finishing quilts gives me a healthy feeling of closure.

I recently assessed my quilt progress this year, and I was astonished to realize that I have completed SEVEN properly quilt sized quilts this year! Not mini quilts, actual snuggle underneath with a cuppa sized quilts. Three are EPP, three are machine only, and one is a hybrid. All but one have been hand quilted.

I am as shocked as anyone in one sense. But in another, I am not surprised at all. The rhythm of repetition, the joy of creativity, and the healing of order emerging from chaos have characterized each and every one of these quilts. In a season when rhythm, joy, healing, and order are precious commodities, I am grateful to have found them in these quilts. 

Instagram can be exhausting.

I’m not typically one of those “on the cutting edge” or “ahead of the curve” kind of people. I tend to hang back, comfortable with what I know. I’m 100% one of those “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” kind of people. That being said, the speed of change in technology and culture in response to those changes doesn’t really make room for folks who can’t keep up.

However, I have found myself increasingly exhausted by trying to keep up lately. And, over the past few months, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that it’s perfectly ok not to keep up. I don’t have anything to prove to anyone, and I actually love the pace of my life. It’s meandering and flexible, while surprisingly routine. And it suits me just fine. So, rather than striving to keep up, I’m leaning into contentment, not comparison. 

I find great comfort in stories.

As part of leaning into contentment, I realized that I needed a little something more than just my stitching to buoy me through the heaviness of this global season. So, I chose a few light hearted rom-com style audiobooks from my library app and began to listen.

As I did so, I found myself laughing and grieving and cheering the characters on. Some of the stories took place during excruciatingly difficult times, not so different from our own. Others simply chronicled the growth of people in regular life. But, the overall sense that began to permeate my outlook was that of resilience. 

I suppose that is the power of stories. They can take us out of our own lives for a short time, and open us up to a bird’s eye view of life. As we do so, rather than faltering under day-to-day myopia, we can return to our own lives with fresh perspective. I’m incredibly grateful for these stories, and I have discovered some wonderful authors I might not have known about before.

(If you’re keen to hear more about the books I’m reading each month, I share them, along with lots of other stitching related news, with my newsletter subscribers at the end of every month. Click here to subscribe!)

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