Sunday, October 14, 2007

Simple Complications

Yesterday, Susan and I headed up to Blairsville so that Susan could take a look at the quilt show that was being held at the North Georgia Technical College. Once we got there, I was immediately reminded of the small SF conventions that Susan and I attended back in the 1970's and early 1980's: an exhibit hall, a small dealer's room, and a close-knit community of people hoping to make their hobby engaging for others.

As soon as we entered the building, I had "school flashback." Schools tend to smell the same, whether you're talking about an elementary school, a high school, or a technical college; there's a distinctive mixture of smells that reminded me of my many years in school buildings, both as a student and as a teacher. That familiar smell triggers a Proustian wave of memories, and that put me in a good frame of mind; unlike many, I have a lot of positive memories of school over the years--and while I had my share of trauma and unpleasantness associated with school, it never negated that sense of nostalgia.

There's also a certain nostalgic attraction inherent in quilting itself; it's one of those lost folk arts that's largely overlooked by the mainstream of today's culture, so it's more frequently associated with older generations. The quilt show underscored that; the average age of the attendees seemed to be early sixties, and many of the people involved in staffing the show seemed about the same age.

It's only natural that quilting would seem antiquated to the mainstream; a quilt is a utilitarian item, not an art form, as far as most are concerned, and they couldn't possibly understand why someone would spend hundreds of dollars and hundreds of hours to make a large quilt when mass-produced quilts can be had for twenty or thirty bucks at most big-box department stores. Even though I've never understood the allure of quilting (too much meticulous detail, far too much time invested in the finished work), I was amazed by the finished product; it's not just the piecing of the fabric, but the phenomenal detail of the quilting finishing itself, with intricate patterns conveyed in the stitching, that was so impressive.

There's something about quilting, with its demands of time and attention, that seems particularly well suited to the North Georgia environs where the show was held. This is a place in which the speed of life seems, by necessity, to be much slower; there are fewer places to go, and the emphasis on the next new thing seems muted here. And there's something about it that seems appealing, almost enticing; the Thoreau ideal of the simplified life almost siren-like lure in these mountains whose communities seem much closer to the surroundings of my childhood than to the suburban microcosm in which I exist now.

But the truth is, those simpler times really weren't so simple. Time dulls pain and blurs unpleasantness, making us see the past in a golden glow; in truth, however, those bygone days were just as complex and stressful as today for those of us who experienced them. I remember school fondly, but if I dig back far enough, I can remember anxiety and sadness and apprehension as well. I remember the world of the 1950s and 1960s and even the early 1970s as a more optimistic time, but when I brush off the softening dust of nostalgia, I have intense memories of fallout shelters, civil defense drills, fears of war, and divisiveness. The same times I remember wistfully now possessed their own sleepless nights of worry, their own frustrations and angers and sorrows.

We haven't made life more complicated, we've just changed the nature of the complications. We don't really have less time--we've just expedited one aspect of our lives to free up the minutes and hours for another. Today, I spend late hours finishing an issue of Comic Shop News on deadline; in 1963, I spent late hours preparing a too-long-neglected science project.

And were it possible to relocate to North Georgia in hopes of rediscovering a bygone time, I'd find myself longing for many of the aspects of my daily life here that I so enjoy. Would it be simpler to life in a rural environment if it meant that I had to plan a lengthy drive to the grocery store or the pharmacy or the bank, rather than enjoying the spontaneity of walking there on a whim, as I do now?

The complications of a simplified life are blurred by memory, but brought back into sharp focus with more scrutiny. Perhaps the simple life can only exist in nostalgia; the present always has its own inherent demands on time, its own worries, its own Damoclesean overhanging fears... but those, too, will lessen and fade as time passes, and these days will likewise become simpler times.

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