of canvases, coronavirus, and cocooning at home

Tucked into a suitcase on a shelf, in the closet where I hang the coats and jackets, hides a stash of my grandmother’s needlepoint canvases.

Some of these canvases are ready for professional finishing. Some are brand new and “un-stitched.” Then there are the partially finished canvases, the ones where she began to stitch and at some point simply stopped. Evelyn Byers Miller was a skilled and creative fiber artist, so after her death it took a long time to gather the courage to pick up a canvas with the aim of finishing her work. How wonderful it would be, I imagined, if my stitches could complete her own?

Each canvas was stored in its own plastic bag with fiber and needle, ready and waiting for my hand. But here’s the thing. With each piece I picked up, I discovered a problem. Somewhere in that once-begun canvas, there was a knot. A tangle. Some kind of glitch. As I moved through the canvases I found one nearly imperceptible obstacle after another, none of which I know how to undo or fix.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a potential solution to each of these problems, with the exception of the canvas on which she apparently spilled tea. That one is a lovely floral design in blue and white. The stain is heartbreaking. I don’t blame her for not throwing it away, though. Who could bear to discard something so lovely and ruined?

If Gram was capable of overcoming the maddening quirks in these particular canvases, why didn’t she? Of the hundreds of canvases, quilts, and ornaments she finished, why did these ones end up in my hands, imperfect and incomplete? Was it a case of good intentions unfulfilled or did she simply have more pressing things to do?

I’m thinking about those canvasses as we journey through this ninth month of pandemic living. We work from home, Jane and I. We study from home. We say no to gatherings and outings and vacations. We have each other; we have our work. It is enough.

In our South Dakota city, though, much goes on as usual. People gather, some cautiously, some with abandon. Restaurants are bustling, though we haven’t sat down for a meal anywhere outside of our own kitchen or quiet park. We’ve visited one or two backyards, and we’ve dashed through the bookstore now and again. We snuck in a movie this summer, when there were six moviegoers spread throughout the theater, all of us hushed and masked. It was our one spectacular indulgence — and worth it.

I’m not particularly weary of staying home, though there are things I miss, people I miss. I’ve had family and colleagues and friends fall ill, and it’s been painful to not be there for them in any meaningful way. I’ve felt selfish at times, lost at others. Mostly I’ve embraced the clarity that comes from cocooning at home and letting the non-essential drift away.

My occasional self-righteousness is shadowed by persistent self-doubt. How long will these tiny knots of isolation be woven into the canvas of our lives? What is waiting to be finished? What has already been damaged or lost? How would we even know?

The death toll continues to rise around us. Hospitals are overwhelmed, doctors and nurses exhausted. And so we continue to do what we can to keep our community safe, even when no one seems to remember that’s what all of us are supposed to be doing. I remain grateful and patient and content, except on the days when I am restless and indignant and disgruntled. We stay home those days too.

Meanwhile, I pack away these tangles to be tended to at a later time. I suspect I may never loosen every knot of missed opportunity or unravel every relationship glitch. No matter. Most things I began before COVID are beautiful in their incompletion and imperfection. Others are lovely and ruined.

For now, I have more pressing things to do.



  1. Jennifer Kirby says:

    Your posts feel so good on my heart. Thank you.

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